Patenting Patenting

One relatively recent development in the field of intellectual property is the ability to file for what are called business methods patents that do not cover a thing, an invention, or a design (the tradition scope of patents) but a way of doing business.

I think it would be a good strategy for companies with lots of over-broad — and in in-all-likelihood bogus — patents to file a business method patent on the act of filing over-broad and bogus patents to use as strategic leverage or tools for litigation. Better yet, they might patent the method of filing to have someone else’s’ patents reexamined and tossed out.

Of course, there’s plenty of prior art but the USPTO doesn’t seem to be too bothered by details like that anymore.

Beware of His Heart of Gold!

I own a gold mobile telephone.

At first, I tried to deny it. I tried to convince myself and others that it was "bronze" or "champagne." The truth triumphed.

Later, I tried to change it. I bought a transparent face and back-plate on ebay. Over a few months, these have cracked and shattered into pieces and my phone has returned to its original color.

Today, I have decided to embrace the fact. I will take proud in my gold telephone and have changed its ringtone to this midi rendition of the theme to Goldfinger to demonstrate my pride to everyone within earshot.

The Biggest-Horned Bighorn

There’s an animal called the "bighorn sheep." In the Museum of Natural History in New York, they have the stuffed remains of the bighorn sheep with the biggest horns on record.

Think of how that ram would have felt if he had known that he was the biggest-horned bighorn sheep. I think that such an achievement must be the source of both confidence and satisfaction on a level that I doubt I will ever experience — and am probably better off without.

For Every Thing a Name… Or Two

I know people who have multiple job titles and multiple sets of business cards to match. They claim that this allows them to fluidly assume different roles when speaking to different people.

The head of the Anglican Church is one of these multi-title jobs. If I had that job, I would want at least two sets of cards. The first would say, "Archbishop of Canterbury" because I think that title commands a lot of respect. The second would say, "Primate of All England," because I think there’s a very different, very interesting, and and potentially very useful, effect that this title could exert as well.

Food To Die For

I’ve known for a long time that many foods that are bad for us humans — high fat, high cholesterol, high sodium, high sugar — are also extremely delicious.

I wonder if there are poisonous foods, and I mean fatally poisonous foods, that are extremely delicious but that, for obvious reasons, we cannot enjoy.

Mika wonders if a condemned man would be allowed to request such a delicacy as his last meal.

The light still shines in me…

A couple nights ago, Mika and I were listening to a tracked called In My Eyes by Milk Inc. The lyrics to the songs begin:

In my eyes you’ll see,
The way it used to be.
Take a look and see,
The light still shines in me.

Mika misheard the lyrics. It’s interesting how replacing "eyes" with another English vowel+s/z piece of anatomy can change a song about personal strength and perseverance to a song about colonoscopy.

Vice Versa

I took a subway a few days that I thought was sending an interesting message. On one side of the car was nothing but advertisements for an anti-smoking campaign. On the other was nothing but advertisements for (somewhat less public-service oriented) pro-beer-drinking campaign.

“Thou Art of a Truth a Treacherous and Unsavoury River”

One of my favorite moments in history comes from the story of Xerxes trying to cross the Hellespont. Here’s the relevant passages from The History of Herodotus in the translation by George Rawlinson:

Towards this tongue of land then, the men to whom the business was assigned carried out a double bridge from Abydos; and while the Phoenicians constructed one line with cables of white flax, the Egyptians in the other used ropes made of papyrus. Now it is seven furlongs across from Abydos to the opposite coast. When, therefore, the channel had been bridged successfully, it happened that a great storm arising broke the whole work to pieces, and destroyed all that had been done.

So when Xerxes heard of it he was full of wrath, and straightway gave orders that the Hellespont should receive three hundred lashes, and that a pair of fetters should be cast into it. Nay, I have even heard it said, that he bade the branders take their irons and therewith brand the Hellespont. It is certain that he commanded those who scourged the waters to utter, as they lashed them, these barbarian and wicked words: "Thou bitter water, thy lord lays on thee this punishment because thou hast wronged him without a cause, having suffered no evil at his hands. Verily King Xerxes will cross thee, whether thou wilt or no. Well dost thou deserve that no man should honour thee with sacrifice; for thou art of a truth a treacherous and unsavoury river." While the sea was thus punished by his orders, he likewise commanded that the overseers of the work should lose their heads.

Bad weather can get us all down but I feel like whipping, branding, and insulting bits of geography is quite over the top — which was the point of course. When I first read this passage, I thought of this as the archetypical example of frustration taken to an illogical and implausible extreme.

Over time though, I’ve found that there are certain moments of intense frustration where branding the ground and insulting the ocean might actually make me feel better in a way that other sort of release might not.

“Laughing Malady Puzzle in Africa”

I’m finishing up a great book called Laughter: A Scientific Investigation that I’ll review more fully in the near future. Before I get there though, there was one nugget in there that I think deserves the spotlight to itself.

We all have experienced the way that laughing in contagious. We all remember laughing in a group for no good reason until the whole situation just got out of control. Well evidently, in 1962, this happened on an epidemic level in what is now Tanzania and it was so bad that it kept some schools closed for over 6 months.

I went back and dug up the original New York Times article and transcribed it here. It’s an interesting read but there are a few things that have become clear with time that weren’t clear at the time that the article was written:

  • The epidemic was not because of environmental causes, food poisoning, or a virus or bacteria as researchers at the time suspected. It was a simple, but extreme, example of contagious laughter and was purely a social (or neurological) phenomenon. It started with girls giggling in primary schools and moved through connected communities — primarily affecting women. The chance of someone "catching" the laughter from someone else correlated heavily with the closeness of the relationship between the two. It basically swept through sisters, to mothers, to good friends and on. It was a multi-year, debilitating, regional giggle fest!
  • Kuru, the diseases described in the end is not at all related. It’s also not, as the article suggests, hereditary. It turns out to be a product of cannibalism and is a prion-based variant of a spongiform encephalopathy much like Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease and or BSE (more commonly known "mad cows disease"). I read on book this one too once.

If a similar giggle fest broke out today, I would be strongly tempted to just drop everything and go see it for myself — and maybe add a few good guffaws of my own into the mix.

DRM, Pop-ups and Rise of Free Software

A few months ago, I went to pick up a computer for a friend at the Apple store and had to wait for 45 minutes while memory was installed. While I waited, I listened to conversations of people coming in to ask technical support questions at the "Genius Desk."

In the 45 minutes I was there, every question asked was about getting around iTunes’ Digital Rights Management (DRM) for legitimate and legal reasons. Every answer was a "sorry" and a shrug.

Here’s an example: "I have a desktop computer, a laptop computer, and an iPod. My laptop broke and you guys just gave me a new one. Now I can’t copy my music over to the new computer." That iTunes users has every legal right to copy the song onto their new computer but the DRM won’t let them do it. What are the chances of someone that spends $200 on iTunes music files and gets locked out from their own legally purchased files by DRM goes back to buy more songs or re-download the ones they lost? Very low. They’ll buy a CD or just go download those songs on a P2P network they know is secure or unmonitored.

In response to this, iTunes’ DRM has become more permissive but it’s not enough — nor can it be. Ultimately, iTunes is competing with P2P systems and ad-hoc systems of swapping amongst friends. The RIAA is wrong in their characterization of the fundamental difference between these systems: the difference is not one of price — the price can (and will) get cheap enough that very few people will care. The core issue is one of software failing to respect its users by privileging the desires of outside interests (in this case the RIAA and its member companies) over its users’. The users get screwed and they won’t come back.

Here’s another example. The last three times I’ve introduced the concept of Free Software to folks, they’ve asked if Mozilla, which they use, is Free Software. Mozilla has taken off in the non-Free Software crowd in large part because of its ability to do pop-up blocking and some related features. Mozilla is doing something that Internet Explorer doesn’t and they’re sick of IE.

Nothing is stopping Microsoft from adding this functionality to IE. In the absence of patents, Free Software shouldn’t assume it can "out innovate" well-funded proprietary software (which seems to be one claim of the Open Source camp); functionality can and will be copied. The reason Internet Explorer can’t compete with Mozilla is that Microsoft places the desires of some (their executives, their executives’ friends, their shareholders, advertisers, pop-up-makers, Hotmail users, the RIAA and the MPAA) over the desires of their users. Microsoft chooses to not incorporate functionality that their users want.

The mistake that both the RIAA in demanding DRM and Microsoft in designing web browsers that don’t block pop ups are making is that they’re taking their de facto monopoly for granted. Their software is annoying — or worse — and as long as viable alternative exist, a growing number of people will turn to them. At some point, things will tip. As people become aware that there are alternatives, these monopolies will be eroded. Ultimately, they will be dismantled. The incumbents, chained down by deals and alliances and promises made to advertisers, recording industry executives, shareholders and their ilk, will find themselves unable to react in an appropriate or timely manner. Free Software is already poised to capitalize on this.

Royalties and Reality

In my entry yesterday, I mentioned that would contact the maker of Pol Pot’s Birthday to inquire about digital distribution. It turns out that Talmage Cooley, the filmmaker, would love uninhibited digital distribution of the film — but can’t afford it. It turns out that Cooley can scrape together the cash for the inexpensive royalties necessary to show the film in festivals but cannot afford the much higher fees that must be paid in order to webcast.

The recording companies continue to claim that if those distributing, performing, or reusing their work in other ways do not pay royalties, musicians will not be able to produce as much, or as good, music. This is fiction designed to sell both consumers and artists on an unjust, exploitative and inefficient system. Cooley’s experience is the reality of a expansive, pay-per-use, highly controlled and highly centralized system of permission and royalty-based access to ideas. It’s a reality where the vast majority of voices are systematically silenced by simple economics.

Independent artists and producers can’t pay expensive royalties for wide distribution of their work because they work is not commercially viable in the way that Hollywood and the RIAA member company’s products are. Their only available alternatives are degrees of silence.

It’s true that if Pol Pot’s birthday was distributed online and paid no royalties, the recording industry would get nothing. But it’s also true that the alternative — the more likely alternative and the one we have now — is for the film it to not be distributed at all; the music industry still get nothing.

In the latter case, the losers here are the independent filmmakers, whose work has its wings clipped systemically, and the consumers, who don’t get to see great independent film. This is a happy enough arrangement for big media of course. At worst, they break even. At best, consumers with lack of alternatives spend their time and their dollars on media that they can get access to. It is a fortunate coincidence that the remaining available films are produced by the large, established movie studios who are jointly owned, or in bed, with the large established recording companies. This is not a conspiracy: it’s a system optimized for the production of some sorts of content (the highly profitable kind) by disadvantaging and silencing available alternatives.

Pol Pot’s Birthday

I tend not to watch films very often but since short film seems better suited to my attention span, I’ve made an effort to go to Seattle’s One Reel Short Film Festival each year. The best film I saw there this year was Pol Pot’s Birthday made by Talmage Cooley.

The film was exactly what it title implies.

Birthday parties are supposed to be fun, right? Pol Pot is about the least fun person you can imagine (to say the least) and his party was not fun. It began with his lieutenants attempting to "surprise" him without giving him reason for alarm and continued through a very tense cake cutting and tasting scene and a brilliant gift giving moment (what do you get Pol Pot for his birthday?) — someone gave him a "Don’t Ask Me, I Just Work Here" desk icon.

Short films like this tend to be hard to get a hold of but you should keep an eye out for it. It’s well done and very funny. There is a writeup at the Brooklyn Film Festival website and an interview with the director elsewhere.

If I might squeeze an rant in here… I really can’t understand why filmmakers don’t distribute these sorts of short films online. There aren’t even the normal Hollywood-esque dubious reasons to not do it. If bandwidth is the concern, there’s always archive.org. And yes, I just emailed to the filmmaker.