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Author Topic: Software patents stifling innovation?
radiorahim
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posted 07 October 2005 08:05 PM      Profile for radiorahim     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
It turns out that I'm a really naive person. I thought I was arguing in favor of innovation when I was writing columns attacking software patents. It seemed obvious to me that software patents served mainly to stop innovation by real developers, who have come to fear teams of lawyers arguing that the coders' projects had violated some broad patent.

But, according to several e-mails I've receivedall from executives at software companies, mind youI've got the whole thing completely backward. Software patents protect and encourage innovation by letting developers (or at least the vendors they work for) know that they can get every penny coming to them.

What was I thinking? I'd have to be some kind of pinko Commie to think that anyone would ever do anything if there wasn't the potential for a big payday at the end.


E-week opinion column by Jim Rapoza


From: a Micro$oft-free computer | Registered: Jun 2002  |  IP: Logged
retread
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posted 07 October 2005 08:38 PM      Profile for retread     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
An interesting column; there is definitely a difference between the need for copywrite (ie so people can't just copy your program - same need as writers and artists have), and patents (which are just an attempt to stop someone from using a concept ... they'd patent the number 2 if they were allowed).

But I'm skeptical about his assertion that lack of innovation is due to companies being afraid of risk. Innovation becomes harder as a field matures (the easy ideas have already been implemented), and its beginning to take rare creativity and discipline to come up with truly innovative software. There really aren't more geniuses in software than in other fields, despite the image of hacker geniuses.

And software is still one of the few industries where someone with an innovative idea can buy all the necessary tools to develope it for just a few thousand dollars - any genius out there reading this only has hiself or herself to blame for not going ahead and creating.


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jrootham
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posted 07 October 2005 09:20 PM      Profile for jrootham     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Patents are useful in some fields. In particular, new mechanical inventions, which tend require both insight and a lot of experiment in order to get right. Patents are designed to protect the investment in experiment as much as they are designed to protect insight.

One problem with patents in software is that new ideas are much more insight based than development based. It is much easier to reinvent the wheel in software (to the point where it is an occupational hazard). This leads to a LOT more inadvertent patent violation in a patent environment. There are also a lot more ideas in a piece of software than there are in a mechanical design, so there is a volume problem as well.


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radiorahim
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posted 07 October 2005 10:35 PM      Profile for radiorahim     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
The growing concern is that software developers must have teams of patent lawyers before they can put anything on the market because they're likely to be sued for infringing someone's patent.

If you're constantly worried about being sued then why bother? So in that sense, software patents can in fact stifle innovation.

There has been a major movement in the EU against software patents and there were demonstrations outside the European parliament when they dealt with this issue some months ago.

This is an issue that really isn't on the radar screen amongst activists in North America.

I think the article nicely points out that most of the truly "inovative" software developments have come from either the public sector or from the academic community. Very little has come from proprietary software.


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jrootham
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posted 07 October 2005 11:19 PM      Profile for jrootham     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
This is an issue that really isn't on the radar screen amongst activists in North America.

I wouldn't say that. It's all over Slashdot. The EFF and Stallman et al. are seriously engaged. Given the differenence in the state of the law and in political culture the fights are being waged differently (with likely differences in effectiveness as well), but I would not say that it is not on the radar screen. It certainly is amongst prgrammers.

To flip baack to commenting on the original article: His comment about lack of innovation by big software shops is less about patents and more about market risk. Figuring out if a derivative product will sell is a lot easier than figuring out if a innovative product will sell. If you have an existing business the decision is skewed heavily towards derivative, if you don't have an existing business innovation is a lot easier to justify.


From: Toronto | Registered: Jun 2001  |  IP: Logged
Ron Webb
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posted 07 October 2005 11:43 PM      Profile for Ron Webb     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by retread:
An interesting column; there is definitely a difference between the need for copywrite (ie so people can't just copy your program - same need as writers and artists have), and patents (which are just an attempt to stop someone from using a concept ... they'd patent the number 2 if they were allowed).
I'm not convinced that either patents or copyrights are necessary. As Rapoza put it:
quote:
In fact, most of the great software innovations seem to have come from individuals or small groups of developers who were creating something solely to solve a problem, to help a group they were part of, or simply out of curiosity and because they could.

Actually, I think I could put it more succinctly than that. One word: Linux.

From: Winnipeg | Registered: Feb 2002  |  IP: Logged
radiorahim
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posted 07 October 2005 11:45 PM      Profile for radiorahim     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
I wouldn't say that. It's all over Slashdot. The EFF and Stallman et al. are seriously engaged. Given the differenence in the state of the law and in political culture the fights are being waged differently (with likely differences in effectiveness as well),

Oh definitely the EFF and Stallman are doing some great work. Its just that at this stage of the game I couldn't imagine a demo being organized in Washington or Ottawa over software issues. So I guess when I was thinking about it "not being on the radar screen", it was from the point of view of there not being that level of a "public" campaign.

quote:
His comment about lack of innovation by big software shops is less about patents and more about market risk. Figuring out if a derivative product will sell is a lot easier than figuring out if a innovative product will sell.

True.

I recall reading one of John Ralston Saul's books a few years ago (forget which one) where he was commenting on the myth of corporate leaders being great "risk takers"...and therefore deserving of the lifestyle and power that they have in our society.

As I recall he was commenting that in fact these folks are a very conservative bunch and take very few risks at all (they're really just managers). They spend their time swallowing up smaller companies that have developed products and services, corporate mergers, chasing patents on things that are ever so slightly different than existing products ...suing each other etc. ... all very "low risk" activities.

[ 07 October 2005: Message edited by: radiorahim ]


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jrootham
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posted 07 October 2005 11:49 PM      Profile for jrootham     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Linux (more particularly the license, GPL) is critically dependent on copyright. There are very real constraints on copying GPL code, they are just not monetary.

Quick summary for the non geeks amongst us:
The General Public License (GPL) requires that if you deliver GPL software to someone you must provide the source code and you may not prevent them from modifying it and redistributing it.

Implications available upon request.


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radiorahim
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posted 08 October 2005 12:14 AM      Profile for radiorahim     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Yes and the GPL is a marvellous thing in that it actively encourages copying, sharing, cooperation and continuous improvement of GPL'd software.

Its where all the excitement is these days in software development.


From: a Micro$oft-free computer | Registered: Jun 2002  |  IP: Logged
Ron Webb
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posted 08 October 2005 12:35 AM      Profile for Ron Webb     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by jrootham:
The General Public License (GPL) requires that if you deliver GPL software to someone you must provide the source code and you may not prevent them from modifying it and redistributing it.
In other words, the only restriction is that the software must remain public. The point is that copying encourages innovation, not the contrary.

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radiorahim
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posted 08 October 2005 12:49 AM      Profile for radiorahim     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Sometimes I've heard the GPL referred to as "copyleft" instead of "copyright"


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jrootham
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posted 08 October 2005 12:52 AM      Profile for jrootham     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
It certainly works in some cases. The other thing is that if you are using software and it breaks if you have the code you have good odds of dealing with the problem. If not you are likely toast. This was actually the problem that triggered Stallman to write the license in the first place.

The point that I was trying to emphasize is that it is copyright that makes this possible. Without it anyone could just take the code and keep any changes to themselves.


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radiorahim
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posted 08 October 2005 02:05 AM      Profile for radiorahim     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
The point that I was trying to emphasize is that it is copyright that makes this possible. Without it anyone could just take the code and keep any changes to themselves.

That's how I understand the Free BSD license works and its what's underneath the Mac OSX operating system.

They're able to take from Free BSD without putting back.

[ 08 October 2005: Message edited by: radiorahim ]


From: a Micro$oft-free computer | Registered: Jun 2002  |  IP: Logged
Gir Draxon
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posted 08 October 2005 11:04 AM      Profile for Gir Draxon     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by radiorahim:
I think the article nicely points out that most of the truly "inovative" software developments have come from either the public sector or from the academic community. Very little has come from proprietary software.

To live, everyone needs to get paid. Even Linux programmers. So who do you suggest picks up the tab?


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radiorahim
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posted 08 October 2005 11:35 AM      Profile for radiorahim     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
To live, everyone needs to get paid. Even Linux programmers. So who do you suggest picks up the tab?

Some open source programmers are indeed getting paid to work on projects and some aren't. Not everyone out there is working for free.

Sun Microsystems for example is a major contributor to the Open Office project.

The model with some of the more "commercial" versions of Linux is that the software itself is free (or cheap) and they make money providing support and services.

Its the collaboration and the fact that the code is open for everyone to see and contribute to that is the strength of open source.


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Ron Webb
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posted 08 October 2005 11:57 AM      Profile for Ron Webb     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Gir Draxon:
To live, everyone needs to get paid. Even Linux programmers. So who do you suggest picks up the tab?
Who do you think pays them now? Their employers, of course, and gladly. If your company used Linux as its O/S, wouldn't you love to have a Linux developer on staff?

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jrootham
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posted 08 October 2005 01:52 PM      Profile for jrootham     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Yes, the BSD license is different, I believe it just requires credit.

Quibble, there are multiple BSD's (Free, Open, and Net are the big ones). I am not sure which one was used by Apple.


I know they used the Mach kernel rather than a BSD one.


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Gir Draxon
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posted 08 October 2005 07:03 PM      Profile for Gir Draxon     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Ron Webb:
Who do you think pays them now? Their employers, of course, and gladly. If your company used Linux as its O/S, wouldn't you love to have a Linux developer on staff?

Yes, but that is corporate software development. It's not "public sector" or "academic". There we have the company paying the bills. I was wondering where radiorahim was going with his plan for public funding of software development. That is, people who don't run Linux or even have computers will still be paying development costs.

I'll take what I can get for free, but I'm not going to assume that it can possibly be that way forever.


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retread
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posted 08 October 2005 07:26 PM      Profile for retread     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
The reason copywrite is necessary is because otherwise there's no point in writing most software - its too easy to copy. Why pay someone to write a program which will be instantly copied and sent around the world; you've just lost the programmers salary for zero gain. Its the same reason writers want copywrite - if you write a great novel or history book and everyone gets to read it for free, why bother ... or more to the point, how could you afford to do so - you'd be too busy doing another job.

There's a huge difference between patents and copywrite. Patents protect an idea, which is often very questionable to say the least. Copywrite protects a given piece of work. The examples brought up are a tiny percentage of the programs out there; a lot of it is aimed at very specific markets, and is very complex (loads of it in engineering applications for instance, and no one's writing freeware or shareware for it, or is it likely anyone will, or would if copywrite disappeared).


From: flatlands | Registered: Jul 2005  |  IP: Logged
Ron Webb
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posted 08 October 2005 09:56 PM      Profile for Ron Webb     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by retread:
The reason copywrite is necessary is because otherwise there's no point in writing most software - its too easy to copy.
You're obviously not a programmer. Real programmers code for the same reason real authors write and real musicians play -- because they love what they do. The good ones can also earn a living at it, and thanks to copyright laws some of them (or more often, some of the companies they work for) can make insane amounts of money at it. But to suggest that truly creative people will stop creating because there's no money in it, or that they will create more or better work if you pay them more, is to misunderstand the creative process.

Linux is probably the best example, but practically every category of software has freeware or open source products that compare favourably with the commercial ones. Of course, as soon as they become successful they generally go commercial..


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retread
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posted 08 October 2005 11:20 PM      Profile for retread     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
No, I'm an electrical engineer, but over the years I've probably written a few hundred thousand lines of C and C++ code thats made its way into commercial applications (the hardware abstraction layer in embedded systems often requires electrical engineers to get involved). I'd love it if there were public domain software I could get to do that sort of thing (anything to do with the communication ports on Motorolla processors for instance, or maybe controlling the C-5 communications processor). A nice real-time distrubted operating system would be nice too, as well as a distributed object data base that worked on it. So far I haven't seen much out there ... you're thinking of just standalone PC applications, which is a pretty small percentage of the programming out there.
From: flatlands | Registered: Jul 2005  |  IP: Logged
Ron Webb
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posted 09 October 2005 12:22 AM      Profile for Ron Webb     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
And without copyright there would be no point in writing your kind of software? You think you'd be out of a job? I doubt it.

I don't see much likelihood that your code would be "instantly copied and sent around the world". I could see some competitor eventually reverse-engineering it and stealing the most innovative parts for their own devices. But then, you could do the same with your competitor's code, and both companies' products would be better and cheaper as a result. It seems to me your situation is an ideal illustration of how copyright stifles innovation.


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retread
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posted 09 October 2005 12:57 AM      Profile for retread     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Curiously enough, the software is by far the hardest part of most embedded systems to reverse-engineer (everything else tends to be stock parts). Which is why the copywrite is so important; without it you could simply make the same electronics and copy the executables (yes, I'm assuming that the hardware patents are also dropped, since the same argument for dropping patents holds in hardware as in software copywrite).

As it stands, competitors can't copy the software - they have to replicate its function, which slows them down considerably. Things get reverse engineered pretty quick as it is, but it still pays to come up with new systems. But why spend millions developing a better processor if your competitor can directly copy and manufacture it a couple of months after you release it?


From: flatlands | Registered: Jul 2005  |  IP: Logged
Gir Draxon
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posted 09 October 2005 04:08 AM      Profile for Gir Draxon     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Ron, tell me, would you do your job for free?

I'd imagine that most programmers like to have income. So if not corporations, who is going to pay the programmer?


From: Arkham Asylum | Registered: Feb 2003  |  IP: Logged
Ron Webb
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posted 10 October 2005 08:48 PM      Profile for Ron Webb     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by retread:
But why spend millions developing a better processor if your competitor can directly copy and manufacture it a couple of months after you release it?
IMHO you'd have to be crazy to copy your competitor's code without even looking at it. I know if I were the programmer, I'd take great delight (you wouldn't even have to pay me! ) in encrypting and embedding little trojans and "Easter eggs" that would activate sporadically if they detected that they were running in a competitor's machine.

But anyway, I'm not suggesting that copyright and patent laws should be abolished entirely. I'm just saying that intellectual property rights, like property rights in general, should not be thought of as absolute. They compete with other rights, in this case including the right to the free exchange of information and ideas, which is essential to innovation. I don't know the exact duration, but I'm thinking somewhere between six months and a few years ought to be enough time for the intellectual capitalists to make their monopoly profits, after which the ideas -- and the code -- should be fair game.


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retread
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posted 10 October 2005 09:35 PM      Profile for retread     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I'd agree with you on that for the most part. I'm against patenting or copywriting ideas ... as far as I'm concerned they should be all public domain, period.

However, I probably diverge from you when it comes to actual works - for instance, how long should the copywrite on a novel last? I'd argue that the concepts in the novel (ie the fantasy gendre started - perhaps unintentionally - by Tolkien) should be free from day one, but the actual novel itself should be protected for at least a few decades. The same thing with software - no one should be able to patent something like windows, or object oriented programming etc, but a given piece of software should be protected (decades sounds silly in this context because its hard to imagine software lasting that long, but its the same principle).

The problem I see is that there's a tendency to want to patent concepts, rather than implementations. The former is almost never necessary or good for society, the latter is required for workers in the field to make a living. Moreover, patenting implementations never slows innovations - you're always free to make a better implementation. Patenting concepts is a barrier; imagine if someone had patented the idea of communications protocols (it could almost happen under today's laws).

I'm interested in hearing why you think the code should be open for copying ... isn't that like allowing me to publish say Atwood's latest novel in my name after a few years? I'm not sure how it would help creativity to let people copy - I suspect in fact it'd lessen creativity because people wouldn't be forced to come up with their own (and potentially better) implementations.

[ 10 October 2005: Message edited by: retread ]


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radiorahim
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posted 11 October 2005 01:50 AM      Profile for radiorahim     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
There we have the company paying the bills. I was wondering where radiorahim was going with his plan for public funding of software development. That is, people who don't run Linux or even have computers will still be paying development costs.

The whole open source software movement is working quite well right now.

As RW mentions, some programmers are doing work as a "labour of love", some programmers are working for non-profit foundations like the Mozilla Foundation, others work for companies that are making heavy use of open source software, and in other cases governments ... also heavy users of open source software are contributing as well.

The governments of China, Korea and Japan for example are collaborating on developing Linux versions for the Asian market. One of the major reasons as I understand it is because they want better support for Asian languages and they don't want to have to depend on "Mr. Bill".


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Fidel
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posted 11 October 2005 03:26 AM      Profile for Fidel     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by retread:
The problem I see is that there's a tendency to want to patent concepts, rather than implementations. The former is almost never necessary or good for society, the latter is required for workers in the field to make a living. Moreover, patenting implementations never slows innovations - you're always free to make a better implementation. Patenting concepts is a barrier; imagine if someone had patented the idea of communications protocols (it could almost happen under today's laws).

I think it depends on a number of issues, like whether the programmer is an independent contractor, or is she/he employed by a company or corporation. A number of scenarios are possible. If you're an independent contractor doing a job for MS, then access to certain layers of the their proprietary code are likely necessary to complete the job.

If you're an IC and say, developing bar code scanning s/w with Windows interface to work with say, OLC's lottery ticket end of things, then you may, probably, more than likely get away with murder as far as borrowing code goes. We might be surprised with the liberties that some professional programmers take in this regard. As long as the end result isn't being integrated into, or becomes a part of a liscenced product and becomes patent protected itself. Designers hate it when someone else attempts to take full legal credit for their stuff. Copy or scab the code and obtaining permission to doso if required tends to flatter the hell out of the designer. Engineers and s/w developers scab code all-the-time. They'd be hamstrung if they couldn't, and things would take a lot longer to do.

Patenting protocols is done all the time. Nobody in their right minds is going to try to copy Motorola's version of CDMA2000 or Nortel's proprietary WireTap protocol without being under contract to do so or without some kind of legal green light to do so.


From: Viva La Revolucin | Registered: Apr 2004  |  IP: Logged
retread
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posted 11 October 2005 11:40 AM      Profile for retread     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Patenting individual protocols happens all the time. There's no patent on the concept of a communications protocol. Its the difference between a concept and an implementation.

Using other people's code is fine (in fact, the use of libraries is vital to both efficiency and good code). But needing more than the interface is a shortcut that often leads to maintainance problems down the road. Again, there's no need for open source. Writing a scanner for windows, all you should need is their API. Okay, I work on a UNIX platform, mainly do hardware design, the coding I've done has mostly been on various realtime operating systems, and don't have experience programming on MS operating systems. With that caveat out of the way, I doubt that using little tricks out of Windows is a good way to go, as opposed to using their published interface.

There's nothing wrong with programming out of love, just as there's nothing wrong with farming or writing out of love. But some people like to be able to make a living doing what they enjoy doing as well. Most of us aren't rich, we're working folks trying to make a living. And because software is so easy to copy (unlike vegetables), we need some sort of copywrite (again opposed to patent) protection for the code we've actually written. Talk to writers, you'll find they say the same thing.


From: flatlands | Registered: Jul 2005  |  IP: Logged
Mandos
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posted 11 October 2005 12:48 PM      Profile for Mandos   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
"all you should need is their API"

However you are depending on their reliability (and even honesty) if you rely on a closed-source library. That's the point, see.


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Mandos
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posted 11 October 2005 12:54 PM      Profile for Mandos   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
So I'm a software developer too, and maybe it's because I'm in academe (I've worked in the private sector too), but to me the model of making money off of commodity software, and commodity IP in general, is problematic, but software especially. People have all kinds of specific needs and computing should fit their needs and preferences as (interoperable) solutions. Programmers as knight-errants, so to speak.
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retread
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posted 11 October 2005 01:36 PM      Profile for retread     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I've never run into problems with reliability wrt API's, but that might be because its less of an issue in embedded systems ... word of mouth gets out pretty fast, and unreliable operating systems lose out quickly (there's nothing close to a monopoly in that world).

As for knight errant programmers and making money off of commodity programming - is that any different than saying a farmer should sell his or her produce for free? In an ideal, money less world in which everyone works for free and has their needs met, sure. In today's society, most of us aren't independently wealthy, and need a paycheck to feed ourselves and our families. Do you teach for free in academia (I'd like to think of professors as knight-errant educators ), or do you take a paycheck?


From: flatlands | Registered: Jul 2005  |  IP: Logged
DrConway
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posted 11 October 2005 03:29 PM      Profile for DrConway     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Here's an example of the stupidity of patent. Microsoft convinced the USPTO they invented the electromechanical mouse in 1985 when Xerox had been using it since 1978.

The desperation with which software companies are pursuing potentially counterproductive actions regarding "intellectual property" is a measure of their realization that any brilliant kid in front of a computer can beat them to the next "killer app", if the killer app isn't too large (there's a physical limitation to how much bug-free code one can write in a year).

In fact, technically, reverse engineering in one specific circumstance is not illegal nor violation of licence. If you look at how a program does something just on the surface, and independently duplicate the effect with your own work, that's not illegal and it's how people have reverse engineered in the past.


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Mr. Magoo
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posted 11 October 2005 03:32 PM      Profile for Mr. Magoo   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Here's an example of the stupidity of patent. Microsoft convinced the USPTO they invented the electromechanical mouse in 1985 when Xerox had been using it since 1978.

That's actually an example of the stupidity of Xerox.


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jrootham
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posted 11 October 2005 05:17 PM      Profile for jrootham     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Not necessarily. The mouse was not invented by Xerox but by Doug Englebart. Xerox may simply have respected the idea that it was an unpatented invention.

I haven't seen the patent in question. Is it for mice in general or a specific type of mouse?


From: Toronto | Registered: Jun 2001  |  IP: Logged
Mr. Magoo
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posted 11 October 2005 05:26 PM      Profile for Mr. Magoo   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Me, I dunno. All I've been told is that Apple added the mouse to their lineup after Steve Jobs saw one in action at PARC. I'm also told that Xerox had the first GUI and the first e-mail.

How did they duff it so badly? They could have had Bill Gates fetching them coffee if they'd acted a little more like businesspeople and a little less like mad scientists.


From: `,_,`,_,,_,, | Registered: Dec 2002  |  IP: Logged
jrootham
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posted 11 October 2005 05:34 PM      Profile for jrootham     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Other way around. They thought they were in the high priced paper business. They refused to cannibalize their existing business and got burned when somebody else did. Essentially they made the same mistake about market size as IBM did with the 650 but there was actually enough potential competition that somebody did it right (well, by sales success standards anyway).
From: Toronto | Registered: Jun 2001  |  IP: Logged
Rufus Polson
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posted 11 October 2005 05:42 PM      Profile for Rufus Polson     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Well, the question isn't really a practical one. Open source software is happening, so there's clearly no issue about whether it can happen, whether it would work, et cetera. And for that matter, I think it's happening more in the embedded world than our embedded-world poster realizes. It just hasn't crawled as far up the stack yet, on average. But there's plenty Linux in the embedded world and the telephony world, and there's certainly open source router projects, for instance.

The question is: Does the world owe it to software companies to keep them alive and give them a fat profit? Is the ability of software companies to siphon a certain share of corporate money in return for providing some of the building blocks for keeping the computing infrastructure working and growing, a moral imperative? Would there be something ethically wrong with a world where most software was effectively owned and enhanced in common by the users (individual, corporate and governmental) rather than bought from software companies?

Well, the argument basically seems to be that fewer programmers would be able to work for a living at software companies, and this would be a hardship. True enough. On the other hand, the reason would be that software was cheaper, and probably more responsive and adapted to local circumstances. So we're talking reduced costs. That probably means that companies would be in a position to either simply be more productive, or to use technology in more extensive and interesting ways, or both. I would suggest that as cheap oil has enabled economic growth, in a high-tech environment so does cheap software. The upshot being that those people would be able to work somewhere, just not necessarily as full-time software programmers.

Personally, I think it's ethically a good thing on balance. I'm not really happy with people like Bill Gates or the Oracle guy sucking huge amounts of money out of the world in return for stuff that ought to be a commodity. Plus: It's the Freedom. Plus: All this stuff about copyrights. OK, so say a programmer works for Adobe and writes big chunks of a program. Who owns the copyright? Not the programmer. So, what's so sacred about legal fictions owning copyrights? The legal fiction didn't have any ideas or use any creativity.

Novels are, by the way, quite a different case. Anyone interested in the ramifications of copyright and so on in different sorts of intellectual creations would be well advised to go to gnu.org and look at some of the very thoughtful analyses of the subject. Richard Stallman opines that novels, poems and so forth, as well as most sorts of scholarly research article, should not be GPLed because alterations to such things are very problematic--they can change and hence misrepresent the author's intent or even scientific findings. He considers most programs to be more akin to recipes, which few people have any qualms about sharing, altering, improving, adjusting to be usable by vegans, et cetera.

Incidentally, even the GPL would not allow someone to take a Margaret Atwood novel and publish it under their own name. Copyright ownership and notification is preserved in the GPL. You can copy and distribute, and you can make changes and additions, but you can't say that the bits you received are copyright anyone but the people they are, in fact, copyrighted by. So that reference was a, hopefully unintentional, strawman.


From: Caithnard College | Registered: Nov 2002  |  IP: Logged
retread
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posted 11 October 2005 06:13 PM      Profile for retread     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I've no issue with open source programming in itself, just with removing the option of copywriting work. Yes, there is some in the embedded world, and I'm happy to look at it and use it when its good. I'll take a look at the GNU site, and read the arguments before commmenting upon the differences between software and writing (btw at the time Atwood was mentioned the discussion was on software copywrite in general, not on the GPL specifically. There is no shortage of people who advocate removing all copywrite on everything - software, literature, science, you name it, so it wasn't a strawman argument). The reference to a recipe trivializes it; something that takes tens of people two years to do is more of an effort than a recipe. The sustained effort is closer to a novel or a textbook than a recipe (but I'll read the site to get their argument).

I'm not too directly involved in the discussion, because most of what I do is hardware design. However, its analogy would be to remove all patents (again a fairly common argument), which would directly effect me. I'm left unmoved by references to Bill Gates' billions, simply because an overwhelming majority of programmers are middle class wage owners. People like Gates won't be effected, he's rich enough that he can absorb anything. People like my co-workers will be. Its like saying there's no reason to pay to see local theatre because Tom Cruise makes ten million dollars a film.

In passing, I note that most advocates for removing copywrite are either independently wealthy, or working on salary in academia - and I've not yet met an academic willing to teach or do research for free ... for exactly the same reason as most developers can't - we need a pay check to surive.


From: flatlands | Registered: Jul 2005  |  IP: Logged
DrConway
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posted 11 October 2005 09:27 PM      Profile for DrConway     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by jrootham:
Not necessarily. The mouse was not invented by Xerox but by Doug Englebart. Xerox may simply have respected the idea that it was an unpatented invention.

I haven't seen the patent in question. Is it for mice in general or a specific type of mouse?


As I said, the electromechanical mouse. One that's still in use today and was in use in the 1970s. I used such a mouse on my Apple //c in 1985, incidentally.

The point is, US patent law is allegedly first invention priority so that Xerox or Apple should have been able to bring suit and claim Microsoft stole their patent.

The fact that they did not suggests that in fact, it's "first patenter priority". Does it now seem clear why the software patent people are panting at the thought? Whoever patents first, licences first and gets a free ticket to print money.


From: You shall not side with the great against the powerless. | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
Mr. Magoo
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posted 11 October 2005 09:56 PM      Profile for Mr. Magoo   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Whoever patents first, licences first and gets a free ticket to print money.

Under normal circumstances, wouldn't the inventor patent first?

It's not like MS or Apple "swooped in". Xerox just didn't bother. Duh to Xerox on that one.


From: `,_,`,_,,_,, | Registered: Dec 2002  |  IP: Logged
jrootham
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posted 11 October 2005 10:07 PM      Profile for jrootham     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
I've no issue with open source programming in itself, just with removing the option of copywriting work.

Hmm. It's not completely clear that you have a complete grasp of the subtleties here. I know of no serious players in the Open Source arena who are arguing for the removal of copyright (note spelling, it has some semantic content). As I pointed out above all the open source licences depend on copyright for enforcement.

There is also the confusion between free as in beer and free as in speech. It is not entirely trivial to deny the first in the presence of the latter, but it is possible.

Stallman is neither an academic nor independently wealthy. He may make his living writing and speaking now, but he certainly did make his living by charging people substantial fees to write (and fix) software under the GNU licence.

Minor point, I think you are denigrating recipes. They are not insignificant because they are short, a good recipe is the end result of a lot of experimentation.


From: Toronto | Registered: Jun 2001  |  IP: Logged
jrootham
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posted 11 October 2005 10:15 PM      Profile for jrootham     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Magoo: what part of:
quote:
The mouse was not invented by Xerox but by Doug Englebart

did you not understand?

What has Microsoft done with this patent? If they are not charging license fees to Xerox or Apple there is no point in taking them to court.

It's still not clear to me what the patent covers. If it is a specific mouse implementation invented at Microsoft there is no problem because earlier mice are (by definition) not violating the patent.


From: Toronto | Registered: Jun 2001  |  IP: Logged
Mr. Magoo
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posted 11 October 2005 10:34 PM      Profile for Mr. Magoo   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Magoo: what part of:

------------------------
The mouse was not invented by Xerox but by Doug Englebart
------------------------

did you not understand?


The part where he invented something of value and clearly didn't bother patenting it, I guess.


From: `,_,`,_,,_,, | Registered: Dec 2002  |  IP: Logged
jrootham
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posted 11 October 2005 11:10 PM      Profile for jrootham     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Then why did you write this after my post?

quote:
Xerox just didn't bother. Duh to Xerox on that one.

Patents are not necessarily useful to individual inventors. To enforce a patent involves going to court. You need deep pockets and/or considerable determination to spend the time and money.

Anyways I just Googled and:

quote:
1968 Computer mouse makes its public debut

The computer mouse makes its public debut during a demonstration at a computer conference in San Francisco. Its inventor, Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute, also demonstrates other user-friendly technologies such as hypermedia with object linking and addressing. Engelbart receives a patent for the mouse 2 years later.


And I couldn't find a Microsoft patent for the mouse in 1985.

DrConway, You got a source to enter into the confusion?


From: Toronto | Registered: Jun 2001  |  IP: Logged
DrConway
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posted 11 October 2005 11:36 PM      Profile for DrConway     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Unfortunately, my source is my (fallible) memory banks. I read books on the subject of software piracy, look-and-feel lawsuits, and patenting in the late 1980s, and one book as I recall pointed out that Microsoft got the jump on Apple and forced Apple to pay licencing fees.

Now, it could well have been thrown out in court later on, but I suspect that Microsoft's rip-off of Apple exceeded what they had to give back if there was a lawsuit.

So, I could honestly be mistaken but I recall being quite incensed at the time, being an Apple // user and therefore a staunch supporter of Apple (Until that suck John Sculley axed the Apple // line).


From: You shall not side with the great against the powerless. | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
retread
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posted 12 October 2005 12:19 AM      Profile for retread     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
IIRC most of the look and feel lawsuits were ridiculous in the first place; Xerox actually were the first to develop a windowed environment (at Palo Alto, along with object oriented programing and the ethernet), and Unix had X-Windows before either Apple or Microsoft got into that game ... which didn't stop Gates from wanting to copywrite the term 'windows'
From: flatlands | Registered: Jul 2005  |  IP: Logged
jrootham
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posted 12 October 2005 08:48 AM      Profile for jrootham     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Microsoft got the jump on Apple and forced Apple to pay licencing fees.

Probably true, just not for the mouse.

It's copyright not copywrite and the issue was trademarking "windows" not copyrighting it.

Patents, copyright, and trademarks are 3 different things. Do I need to post the 30 second lecture?


From: Toronto | Registered: Jun 2001  |  IP: Logged
Rufus Polson
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posted 12 October 2005 04:44 PM      Profile for Rufus Polson     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by retread:
I've no issue with open source programming in itself, just with removing the option of copywriting work.

Flat removal is not a workable option. But there is quite a bit of question just what copyright should be like, and whether it should be a "one size fits all" or whether different kinds of works should be treated differently, and how long it should last, and what rights should and should not be involved, and for whom.
Incidentally, I think that while it's trivially true that the GPL depends on copyright, at the same time if there were no copyright law for computer programs (or more precisely, if there were a law regarding programs which granted relevant rights to the public, thus avoiding EULAs and similar contract-based end-runs), then the GPL would not be necessary. Whether that's desirable or not, it's not really the case that the spirit of the GPL would be crushed by a no-copyright legal regime.

quote:
The reference to a recipe trivializes it; something that takes tens of people two years to do is more of an effort than a recipe. The sustained effort is closer to a novel or a textbook than a recipe (but I'll read the site to get their argument).

It's more a matter of function than length. The point is that a recipe is something designed to produce a particular outcome. It's not a work of art, nor is it a factual claim or a structured argument. So it's useful to be able to make changes if you find that either you have a way of making it give a better version of the desired outcome, or you have a slightly different outcome in mind. So, say you have a recipe for chocolate pate with a mango coulis. If it calls for chocolate chips, you might well want to adjust it and instead put in a good bittersweet chocolate, making it a better chocolate pate. Or, if you hate mangoes, you might want to make it a raspberry coulis instead. Programs are similar; if there are bits that are buggy, or not user friendly, or if you think it would be useful if it had a couple of extra functions that you need, it's handy to be able to make changes. In both cases, it's somewhat beside the point that you might be interfering with the artistic vision of the original author.
Design specifications, architectural blueprints and so on and so forth have similar characteristics.

Novels aren't comparable in this way. Someone wrote a novel to be the novel they wrote. They arguably wrote it as some kind of artistic unity. Changing the ending because it depressed you is problematic. Poems, even short ones, are more like novels; so is art. For this reason among others, Stallman is actually prepared to concede that computer games are probably not workable candidates for GPL-like licenses; they contain too much original art, as a rule (although game *engines* are another story).

Political polemics and research papers are even more problematic. You can't just let people take your research paper, change the data and the conclusions, and redistribute it. There has to be some kind of rule about that. It's easy to make an argument that people should be able to freely redistribute research papers, retaining the attribution (i.e. not claiming to have written it oneself). I'm not claiming it's a conclusive argument, but it can certainly be made and is fairly robust. But it's pretty clear that even if you bought that argument, such redistribution rights should *not* include rights to make alterations.

quote:
I'm left unmoved by references to Bill Gates' billions, simply because an overwhelming majority of programmers are middle class wage owners.

Well, yes. And an overwhelming majority of programmers do not hold the copyrights to their work. And a large majority of programmers don't actually work in software houses. But you're back to the question, basically, of whether the world owes you a living--and not just *a* living, but the particular living you have chosen.

quote:
People like Gates won't be effected, he's rich enough that he can absorb anything. People like my co-workers will be.

But you're back to the question, basically, of whether the world owes you a living--and not just *a* living, but the particular living you have chosen. Does the world owe sofware-house programmers a living writing sofware, even if the economy in general will be better off without those software houses? At this juncture, I'd like to ask you--do you consider the losses of jobs in the vacuum tube business caused by the rise of transistors a bad thing? How about the massive layoffs that corporations regularly indulge in for "efficiency"? How about movement of jobs to sweatshops in third world countries, allowing you to buy cheaper goods? How about Wal-Mart?
Now, if you've been a stalwart backer of labour in all its struggles against various forms of offshoring, downsizing, and unionbusting then you have a leg to stand on in making this argument. Otherwise, you don't. But even if you do, the case is more like the vacuum tube one.

quote:
Its like saying there's no reason to pay to see local theatre because Tom Cruise makes ten million dollars a film.

No, it's not remotely analogous. If Tom Cruise owned the local theatre company and was taking half the receipts off the top, perhaps. But really, Tom Cruise is a bit of a red herring. The point is that the Gates-types own the copyrights and rake off much of the cash, and they're not analogous to Tom Cruise--more like producers. The programmers at their companies don't make any Tom Cruise salaries, either.

quote:
In passing, I note that most advocates for removing copywrite are either independently wealthy, or working on salary in academia

I've never actually heard of an independently wealthy advocate for removing copyright.


From: Caithnard College | Registered: Nov 2002  |  IP: Logged
Ron Webb
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posted 12 October 2005 11:08 PM      Profile for Ron Webb     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I've been otherwise occupied for a couple of days, and I still don't have a lot of time, but I've been meaning to respond to this:
quote:
Originally posted by retread:
I'm interested in hearing why you think the code should be open for copying ... isn't that like allowing me to publish say Atwood's latest novel in my name after a few years? I'm not sure how it would help creativity to let people copy - I suspect in fact it'd lessen creativity because people wouldn't be forced to come up with their own (and potentially better) implementations.
In the software industry, it would help creativity in the same way that copying successful DNA helps the evolution of ever more sophisticated organisms. If you come up with a brilliant implementation of an algorithm, then that implementation will out-compete others. It will become the new standard to beat -- until some clever programmer figures out a modification that makes it even better, and then his modified version becomes the standard. And so on.

Believe me, clever programmers will always be on the lookout for better algorithms, not for the money, but for the sheer fun of it. (Not to mention the bragging rights.) And corporations will always be on the lookout for employees who clearly demonstrate their understanding of the algorithms too. Who better to supervise your Linux systems than the guy who wrote part of it?

Again, let me emphasize that I'm not totally opposed to limited copyright protection. I think the guy who comes up with a better TCP/IP stack (or the corporation that employs him) ought to have a chance to make a fair profit on it. But how much is fair? I don't think "the maximum possible profit" is necessarily the right answer. There are other considerations besides profit. For instance, at what point does fair return for a clever idea start looking more like monopolistic control over a de facto standard?

When I have more time I may start a new thread on this topic, because I think it's an important emerging issue for progressive thinkers. Intellectual property will soon become the dominant form of property in our economy, if it isn't already; and I think it's high time we stopped treating it like anything other than the same old capitalism we've come to know and distrust. In many ways it's even worse: at least the old capitalism created jobs -- the factory owner still needed workers to operate the machinery -- but the cost and effort involved in licensing software is negligible. Bill Gates could lay off his entire work force and still make billions just selling MS Windows from his Web site.


From: Winnipeg | Registered: Feb 2002  |  IP: Logged
DrConway
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posted 26 October 2005 12:02 AM      Profile for DrConway     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
John Walker of AutoCAD Fame Bemoans Patents

quote:
Ever since Autodesk had to pay $25,000 to ``license'' a patent which claimed the invention of XOR-draw for screen cursors (the patent was filed years after everybody in computer graphics was already using that trick), at the risk of delaying or cancelling our Initial Public Offering in 1985, I've been convinced that software patents are not only a terrible idea, but one of the principal threats to the software industry.

[ 26 October 2005: Message edited by: DrConway ]


From: You shall not side with the great against the powerless. | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged

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