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February 14 2012

Four short links: 14 February 2012

  1. Why I Hate The STOCK Act (Clay Johnson) -- an attempt to reform insider trading within government, but because Congress exempts itself from substantial penalties then it has little effect where it's needed most. We won't see change on the issues that matter to us (copyright, due process for Internet takedowns, privacy, etc.) while the lawmakers are distracted by money.
  2. Instruction Medium is the Message (Dan Meyer) -- Print is a medium. Same as digital photos. Same as a teacher's voice. Same as a YouTube video. Same as a podcast. These are all different media. And as we know, the medium is the message. The medium defines and constrains and sometimes distorts the message. The math that can be conveyed in a YouTube video is not the same math that can be conveyed in a digital photo or a podcast or a print textbook. Anything that can be replaced by a computer should be; it's doubtful that successful widespread education consists only of things a computer can replace.
  3. Eolas Patent a Hollow Victory (Simon Phipps) -- those who were extorted by the patent troll will go uncompensated, and the loss of one patent leaves their business model still intact. The patent system is extremely broken in the US, it's a giant cost of doing business, a regulation-created tax that is paid to trolls instead of to the US Government. What idiot supports a tax that doesn't go to the government? An ethically-corrupted one (see point 1 above).
  4. Monitor your Continuous Integration Server with Traffic Lights and an Arduino -- nifty little hardware hack. It's an example of making physical objects which control or portray virtual systems, and it's tied into this Continuous Integration trend whereby software changes go live as soon as possible rather than being held off until 2am on the first Thursday of the month, when the IT team come in to manage the rollout of the new code. CI, in turn, is an example of failing early on something small rather than failing later and larger. (via Sandy Mamoli)

February 10 2012

Top stories: February 6-10, 2012

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

The NoSQL movement
A relational database is no longer the default choice. Mike Loukides charts the rise of the NoSQL movement and explains how to choose the right database for your application.

Jury to Eolas: Nobody owns the interactive web
A Texas jury has struck down a company's claim to ownership of the interactive web. Eolas, which has been suing technology companies for more than a decade, now faces the prospect of losing the patents.

It's time for a unified ebook format and the end of DRM
The music industry has shown that you need to offer consumers a universal format and content without rights restrictions. So when will publishers pay attention?

Business-government ties complicate cyber security
Is an attack on a U.S. business' network an attack on the U.S. itself? "Inside Cyber Warfare" author Jeffrey Carr discusses the intermingling of corporate and government interests in this interview.


Unstructured data is worth the effort when you've got the right tools
Alyona Medelyan and Anna Divoli are inventing tools to help companies contend with vast quantities of fuzzy data. They discuss their work and what lies ahead for big data in this interview.



Strata 2012, Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work. Save 20% on Strata registration with the code RADAR20.

Photo used with "Unstructured data" story: mess with graphviz.

Developer Week in Review: A pause to consider patents

This week, as I do occasionally, I want to focus in on one specific topic.

For regular readers, the topic of technology innovation and patents is nothing new; it's a problem that is frequently covered in this space. But this week, there were two important occurrences in the world of intellectual property that highlight just what a mess we've gotten ourselves into.

The first is an unexpected turn of events down in scenic Tyler, Texas, home of the world's most litigant-friendly patent infringement juries. How friendly? Well, biased enough that Eolas relocated its corporate HQ to Tyler just to be close to the courts. Eolas, as you may recall, is the pesky gadfly that's been buzzing around giants such as Microsoft for years, claiming broad patents over, well, the entire Internet. Rather than continuing a costly court battle it might lose in the end, the House of Redmond settled, and a host of other high-tech cash-cows followed suit.

US Patent 5,838,906As Eolas continued to threaten to sue the pants off everyone, a ragtag group of plucky companies like Adobe Systems, Google, Yahoo, Apple, eBay and Amazon.com said enough is enough. And this week in Tyler, following testimony by luminaries such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a jury agreed, invalidating the infamous '906 patent.

You'd think that this would make Google, one of the main defendants, a big hero and confirm its status as Not Evil. But in the very same week, Google refused to budge on its licensing requirements for patents it acquired from Motorola, patents that are required for any company that wants to play in the 3G cell phone space.

When a standard is adopted by governmental bodies (such as the FCC) or standards-setting bodies like IEEE, it should ideally be free of any intellectual property restraints. After all, that's the purpose of a standard: to provide a common framework that competing companies can use to produce interoperable products. Standards such as GSM and CDMA are why you can use your iPhone in Europe (if you're rich).

The problem is, most modern standards come with a bundle of patents attached to them. In the 3G space, Google (through the Motorola acquisition) and Samsung own a lot of them. As part of the standard-making process, these companies are supposed to agree to offer use of the patents under Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) license terms. The idea is that all companies using the standard pay the same license fees to the patent holders, so no one gets an advantage. The problem is, who decides what is Fair and Reasonable?

This is especially pernicious when the company licensing the patent is also a competitor in the space. Obviously, Samsung doesn't pay itself a license fee to use its patent, so it doesn't matter how expensive it makes the fee, as long as Samsung doesn't incur the wrath of the standard-setting body. In the case of Motorola/Google, the license fee is set at 2.25% of the total selling price of the phone (which would come to around $13.50 on a $600 iPhone). Apple, et al., are screaming to the moon that that kind of licensing is not in the spirit of FRAND, but it's up to groups such as the European standards body, ETSI, to determine if the patent holders are really playing fair.

Of course, Google has fallen victim to the same issues. Although it doesn't pay the piper directly, phone manufacturers using Android end up reportedly paying $5 per phone to Microsoft to avoid patent issues. It's worth noting, however, that at least Microsoft is using software-related patents that it claims Android infringes, not patents directly related to the underlying standards used by the phone.

There's a simple solution to this problem, of course, which is not to allow patent-encumbered technologies to become standards. The software world has (mostly) been free of this kind of nonsense, and it's a good thing. Can you imagine having to pay a license fee to use SOAP, or AJAX? The worrisome thing is that this could become the model used for software patents, and it would basically kill smaller companies trying to be innovative.

Oh, and before you count Eolas out of the game, remember that this is just a single trial it lost. It can try again with another jury and another set of companies. Unless the USPTO invalidates the underlying patent, Eolas is still out there, waiting to strike.

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

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Jury to Eolas: Nobody owns the interactive web

As Joe Mullin reported at Wired earlier tonight, a Texas jury has struck down a company's claim to own the interactive web. The decision in this case comes after more than a decade of legal wrangling that has drawn in some of the biggest technology companies and retailers in the world. As Timothy Lee observed at Ars Technica, Eolas, "a patent troll that has been shaking down technology companies for the better part of a decade, now faces the prospect of losing the patent."

It's a rare reversal of two software patents (7,599,985 and 5,838,906), that shouldn't have been granted in the first place. It's also an important victory for the open Internet.

As a result of the decision, the eight companies that were resisting the patent lawsuits won't have to pay anything to Eolas. If Google, YouTube, Yahoo, Amazon, Adobe, JC Penney, CDW Corp., and Staples had lost the patent infringement suit, they would have been subject to more than $600 million in damages.

The Eolas patent case represents one of the most infamous claims to ownership of the commons that grew up in universities, garages and labs in the early 1990s.

Here's a quick summary of the history: the '906 patent was applied for in 1994 and granted to Eolas in 1998. Eolas sued Microsoft in 1999. Microsoft lost that trial and settled with Eolas. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Microsoft both petitioned the U.S. Patent Office to reconsider patent. The Patent Office upheld it, both times.

The Eolas patent covers "embedded application" in a browser, a broad description of a function that was typical of client-server systems of the time. The patent was then used by Eolas founder Michael Doyle to make a broad claim about the invention of interactivity on the web, based upon a medical imaging application that enabled a user to manipulate images on a web browser with computation occurring in the background on a server.

The case appears to have turned on the demonstration of prior art by the defense. A computer science student at the University of California at Berkeley, Pei-Yuan Wei, testified during the trial that he had conceived of making interactive web features as early as 1991, including the creation of the Viola Web browser. Viola, first released in April 1992, was the first web browser with inline graphics, scripting, tables and a stylesheet. The web browser was in development at O'Reilly in 1992-1994. Another UC Berkeley student, Scott Silvey, testified that he had demonstrated such features to engineers at Sun Microsystems in 1993.

That testimony, when combined with that of web pioneers like Eric Bina, the co-founder of Netscape, and Dave Raggett, who invented the HTML "embed" tag, and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was enough to convince this jury.

"It was ahead of its time," testified Berners-Lee. "The things Pei was doing would later be done in Java."

One interesting detail that emerged in the case was that the U.S. Patent Office didn't have access to the Internet in 1994 and was apparently forbidden from going on the Internet in 1997, which would make research into prior art in cyberspace somewhat of a challenge.

Patent trolls continue to be a major issue for software companies and the technology industry as a whole in 2012, as an episode of "This American Life" on when patents attack effectively communicated.

As Mike Masnick points out at TechDirt, while today was an important victory for the networked commons and civil society, Eolas still has a lot of settlement money in hand to pursue an appeal.

That said, the jury's decision to invalidate Eolas' claims of ownership regarding the basic technology that enables access to the interactive web means the company won't be suing anyone for a while.

Here's to the Open Web.

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