Saturday, January 28, 2012

Still don't get the fuss about SOPA?

The one video everyone should see about SOPA is this one by Clay Shirky.

And if you think SOPA is going away, think again. It will change its name and be back again. In fact, the controversial ACTA treaty, which has similar goals to SOPA, is already marching toward becoming law. ACTA stands for "Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement" but it is largely focused on policing the internet and punishing individual internet users. ACTA is arguably worse than SOPA, and was known among activists even before SOPA, although the text of the treaty has been kept secret from the public until recently. The fight between citizens and Big Copyright is one that we will have to keep fighting--right now, and for a long time to come.

Warrantless wiretapping lives on

It was over six years ago that people who care about the U.S. constitution were dismayed to learn about a secret U.S. government program to monitor phone and internet communications inside the U.S. and not just abroad, without regard for the fourth amendment which normally prevents blanket spying.

Of course, organizations that care about privacy, like the EFF, launched lawsuits against telecomms and the government in order to learn more about the program (discovery) and hopefully shut it down when it is proven unconstitutional. I had assumed that this program was a Bush or neoconservative thing, but then Obama voted "yes" on the bill that gave retroactive immunity to companies participating in the program, and when he became president he continued every tactic that made us complain about the Bush administration.

The retroactive immunity bill blocked the EFF's lawsuit against AT&T, including the discovery process, which leaves one lawsuit against the NSA which seems to have been stalled for a very long time. I think it's been a couple of years since I heard any news on the topic, but EFF now says their lawsuit can proceed once more. In the meantime, the program is presumably operating as before. I wonder what U.S. government spying algorithms think of my personal emails...
  • "The government has been using its secrecy system in absurd ways for decades, but 2011 was particularly egregious. Here are a few examples."

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Against SOPA, Part 2

A few companies, but not the ones pushing SOPA, understand the right way to make money in the digital age. Valve, makers of the video game distribution system called Steam, understand. Back on slashdot, 'hairyfeet' explains:
Steam DRM is trivial to bypass for anyone but the simplest Billy Joe Bob (which is what the original DRM like CD checks was for, to get rid of casual piracy) and hacked Steam games are all over P2P yet Gabe from Valve is singing "Merry Xmas to me" while swimming in a giant pool full of money like Scrooge McDuck, why? Because he learned the way to turn pirates into customers isn't pile on the DRM and hoop jumps but to make it easy, simple, and cheap. We humans are lazy creatures by nature and if you make something simple enough and cheap enough it becomes more of a PITA to pirate than it does to simply buy it and Valve seems to get that.

Take my own case for example, I probably spent a good $200 this Steam Xmas sale between me and my two boys. Now was there a SINGLE game, even one, that I couldn't have pirated trivially? Nope in fact I could have simply used the listings on Steam and went and downloaded every single one if i desired, so why didn't I? Because Valve has made it as simple as "whip out CC, push button, get game" and their download speeds are insanely fast compared to most P2P, most of the games i bought were bundle packs where I got a pile of games in a series for one low price (such as FEAR 1 & 2 & the DLC extras for $5)or a game with ALL the DLC (which the pirated version never has, such as Just Cause II with all the DLC included for $7) and unlike the pirated version I can enjoy full MP support, I get the game automatically updated to current, I get Valve's excellent long tail game support (Such as their throwing in HL:DM when I bought the complete HL2 series which is STILL highly populated after all these years) and it even keeps my graphics drivers updated without me having to bother.


So if companies would just accept the mantra of keep it simple, easy, and cheap, put in the most simple of DRM, just to keep Billy Joe Bob from passing around copies to all his buddies, they could be making mad piles o' cash instead or trying to assrape the entire Internet with SOPA and the like. For an example of a company that didn't "get it" look at MSFT, for about 7 months I saw NOTHING but legit versions of Windows and in a small shop that's unheard of, so why did it happen? At $50 a copy the win 7 HP upgrade made it cheaper and less hassle to buy Windows than it was to pirate and $50 appears to be the sweet spot for Windows Home. Sure enough Ballmer kills the program and not 30 days later I start seeing Win 7 Ultimate everywhere because folks simply weren't willing to pay $100 for home and if they are gonna pirate why not get the biggest SKU? Make it simple, easy, and cheap, find the sweet spot on price and people WILL buy simply because its the easiest route. Throw in a couple of bonuses that pirates don't get like DLC and MP and it becomes a no brainer. I mean when I get both Max Paynes for $2.75, Butcher Bay remade in HD AND Dark Athena for $5, and JC II with over a pages worth of DLC for $7 why would I bother to pirate?
Actually, buying stuff on Steam is so easy it's scary. I don't even have to enter my credit card info; they already have it. Just a couple of clicks and you can start downloading your game (which is also automatic, no manual installation!) No wonder I've probably bought $200 in games over the past year. Because it's easier than piracy.

Look, I have a well-paying job and plenty of disposable income; why would I waste my time pirating when it's so easy not to? And as for people that don't have much disposable income, why should big companies waste so much time trying to prevent them from copying? It won't increase their bottom line that much.

Steam also uses sales, just like any physical store. They often put games on sale for 33%, 50%, or even 75% off. New games may not be put on sale for as much as a year, but when you go to the game store you can get a good deal on something pretty much every day. So when I'm a fan of a franchise I tend to buy at full price (e.g. Portal 2 for $50), but I also buy games I've never heard of for rock-bottom prices. I got Flatout: Ultimate Carnage for $5, which turned out to be such a terrific racing game that I bought a $90 racing wheel for it. (Sometimes I wish I could give an extra "tip" for a game that I paid very little for, if it turns out to be really good.)

Note: there are a couple of gotchas with Steam. First, you can't return a game if it won't run on your computer. There are two games in my library I've never played for this reason, and if you're thinking this must be against consumer-protection laws, well, you're probably right. Second, you can't re-sell or transfer a game to anyone else. So think carefully before you pay full price for a game on Steam. On the plus side, you can install a game on multiple computers, but ordinarily you can't run it on two computers at the same time (this sounds like it imposes an unreasonable internet-access requirement on single-player games, but that's only partly true.)

Netflix is another obvious example of doing things the "right" way. $8 per month buys us access to Netflix's entire movie catalog.

Thanks to Steam, we don't pirate games at our place anymore. Thanks to Netflix, we almost never pirate movies and we don't need cable, either.

However, we are huge Dr. Who fans. As far as we know, as Canadians we don't get Dr. Who on broadcast TV and we don't know a place where we can buy it to watch at the same time it becomes available on TV. So we pirate it.

Likewise, I want to buy my music in the form of MP3s, but I am boycotting Apple and iTunes. Amazon sells MP3s, but (last I checked) they won't sell to Canadians. So guess what? I haven't bought any music for about a year. My music collection is stagnant and I feel bad about that, but it's entirely the music industry's fault (I assume it wasn't Amazon's idea to refuse sale to Canadians).

Companies that push laws like SOPA, including the three biggest record companies (Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group) are not willing to adapt to what customers want. They refuse to sell the customer what they want, are dismayed that this hurts their bottom line, and then use their immense lobbying power to demand laws to fix the problem.

This behavior, unfortunately, forces our discussions to be about how bad some new bill in congress is, and how to organize against it, instead of talking about alternatives to copyright and different business models that customers like and that actually work.

The problem with copyright is that it's backwards. Copyright can't pay you a dime for actually doing the work, it only pays people by preventing other people from making copies, which, indirectly, allows authors to charge money for copies. Copyright acts as though the work that authors do is worthless, and that only the copies have value. In my opinion the opposite is true; it is the work that deserves payment, it is the product of the work that has value to society, and making copies is a necessary mechanism to let society enjoy the work. If a work actually has value to society--whether it's a "free" work like OpenOffice or a billion-dollar hit like Avatar--the value to society is increased, not diminished, by making copies and using them. So copyright's fundamental approach of banning unauthorized copies just feels wrong.

And when we look at copyright, I think we should use the right perspective. Yes, we want authors to be paid. And maybe there's an argument to be made that we should pay them for their work alone, separate from its value to society. But that should not be the fundamental goal. The fundamental goal should be to enrich society. Why should authors be paid? Because what they do is valuable to society. Because it makes the world a better place. We should pay authors not for their sake, but for our sake. If they don't get paid, authors would do much less authoring! That would be bad for society. We pay them so that we can have software, music, movies and games.

When you look at the matter this way, restricting the freedom to copy looks even more wrongheaded. Why?

First, because society is enriched the most when something can be copied freely. There are many examples of this in the software world where I work: OpenOffice, Linux, SharpDevelop and thousands of other programs and code libraries are not only free to copy, but free to modify too. Moreover, when software is truly free, all of us developers have the freedom to take useful pieces of that software and re-use it in new software, with or without customizing it to our needs. This freedom has tremendous value and is a major contributor to the rapid progress we enjoy in the software industry. But as I have discussed before, free software authors are mostly unpaid for their "free" work because there are no laws that are financially favorable to us. And unlike Viacom or Sony Pictures, we have little power to lobby congress for laws favorable to us, or to influence public discourse.

Second, because civil liberties, including the freedom to copy, are good for humanity. Quite simply, free people are happy people. So let's be skeptical of "solutions" to society's problems when the solutions involve taking away our freedoms. Some freedoms, like the freedom to kill, must be taken away, but let us not destroy more freedoms than we absolutely have to.

But of course, we can't reduce copyright's reach without proposing an alternative. I've already discussed how business models based on convenience and low or variable prices can help authors without strengthening copyright; these buniness models would continue to work equally well under weaker copyright regimes and shorter copyright terms. And over six years ago I talked about how useful a micropayment system would be. Basically, we need a system in which digital goods can be sold for prices we all can afford: 25 cents or less. And we need to be able to pay for 25-cent goods and 10-cent goods with just one click, with instant delivery.

Instead of only selling a 20-chapter paper book for $10, it could easily be more profitable to give away the first chapter and sell the others online for 25 cents each, or allow each page be read for free with a prominent advertisement and a message like "Just 25 cents to hide ads!". I suspect that per-chapter or per-page business models would work best for nonfiction and reference books, such as programming books and textbooks. If authors insist on selling the paper book for full price, they are missing out on a huge number of possible customers that are only interested in one or two chapters and wouldn't consider paying full price. If they like the chapter they buy, they may come back later to buy the rest. And authors must allow search engines to index their books, otherwise most customers will never find them.

We also need a system that teenagers can use; people without credit cards should be able to buy digital goods.

Of course, I have more radical ideas, such as directly paying authors for their work (if authors so choose) and then letting everyone worldwide to copy and remix the work for free, but for some reason a lot of people are vehemently opposed to this kind of approach, probably because it would involve taxpayer money.

In any case, bills like SOPA and PIPA are absolutely wrong. These bills should be rejected in their entirety. Ideally we would replace them with far more progressive bills, but that won't happen because most of the lobbying money comes from the old guard, the big companies that are used to easy money and only care about protecting their obsolete business methods.

Oh, and let's stop concentrating on how we can make George Lucas richer. George Lucas already made billions of dollars; why should it still be illegal after 35 years to make copies of the original Star Wars? George is free to tweak the original Star Wars (yet again!) and charge us to see the new version, but why should we still have to pay him for the old version? Most of the profits were made long time ago in a century far, far away. It's time to reduce copyright to 30 years or less. I look forward to the day when every new Smartphone comes with a built-in library of a thousand classic movies and a million out-of-print books.

Update Jan 17: Eric Cantor is "[stopping] all action on SOPA", but its Senate twin, PIPA, still lives and English Wikipedia is planning a protest blackout for tomorrow.

I'd like to add some last words from Slashdot:
We now have the technology for everyone in the world with an internet connection to access basically the entire wealth of human culture. I don't think there is ethical case to be made that this should be artificially restricted. The question we need to solve is not how we can maintain outdated business models under these circumstances, but how we can make that happen and still enable content creators to make a living. - Asic Eng
I've not been a fan of stealing content, but I'm coming around to that point of view. Copyright is a social contract where creators get something (a monopoly) in return for something (the improvement of the public domain when the monopoly expires). They're using the corruption of law to get their something without paying the something by preventing the expiration of the monopoly. Complying with this encourages corruption of law. So in the interest of good citizenship until they restore the balance of getting something in return for something, violating copyright isn't a sin: it's your civic duty. - symbolset
The right answer, if you are a copyright supporter like me, is to ease back to something that the public will be less likely to revolt against while we do some serious objective research on the problem. The right answer is to find out how we can fund the progress of science and the useful arts under this new reality. Copying does not cost any money any more. That is a fundamental change that we need to adapt to. Copyright was invented based on a premise that is no longer true. Failing to consider the new reality and research how to adapt to it is as stupid as Krushchev insisting on Communism. Nice theory, except it does not work.

We need to think about that and come up with a solution, not just fire wildly into the dark. None of the legislation over the past 15 years has made a hint of a dent in infringement. Same thing we've been saying ever since the DMCA was just a twinkle in the RIAA's eye. These laws cannot work, mathematically speaking, because reality has changed. We need to stop the wishful madness and think of how to turn free copying into a win. Seeing as how it is a massive boon to society to be able to reproduce things for free, that shouldn't be too hard. We are making this harder than it needs to be. - bob9113
So, what's right? Laws that serve the people.

Put strict limits on lobbyism, campaign contributions and the rights of large corporations. Don't fix the symptoms of a bad system, fix the system. - Tom

Against SOPA, Part 1

In response to a couple of petitions against the "Stop Online Piracy Act" (SOPA) on, the official White House response, while somewhat balanced, included strong anti-piracy language and insisted that we need new legislation to combat piracy. Somehow, they insist, we need new legislation even though the entertainment industries already got the strong anti-piracy law that they wanted passed in 1998, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act... alongside the other law they wanted, the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, which retroactively extended corporate copyrights (as well as personal copyrights) by 20 years to nearly 100 years, to allow Disney and other companies to make slightly more money on films that their grandfathers made in the 1920s.

The White House response did had something constructive to say:
So, rather than just look at how legislation can be stopped, ask yourself: Where do we go from here? Don’t limit your opinion to what’s the wrong thing to do, ask yourself what’s right. Already, many of members of Congress are asking for public input around the issue. We are paying close attention to those opportunities, as well as to public input to the Administration. The organizer of this petition and a random sample of the signers will be invited to a conference call to discuss this issue further with Administration officials and soon after that, we will host an online event to get more input and answer your questions.
I enjoyed some of the responses on Slashdot. I'll post a couple that I think deserve reading.

But first, why is there a controversy about copyright? Part of the controversy is manufactured by those who have the most to gain from copyright laws, and especially those who have gained the most in the past from copyright laws and are annoyed that they are not getting as much money as they used to. The Time-Warners and Disneys of the world used to have total control over film and music distribution, and they could charge a lot for their services and make a continuously large and safe income. In the age of the internet people can legitimately look elsewhere for entertainment--YouTube, Reddit, StumbleUpon, and thousands of other web sites provide interesting low-priced and noncommercial entertainment. And, of course, people can easily copy commercial content without permission from the big companies. Ever since the internet became popular in 1996 or so, the Time-Warners and Disneys have been terrified of the potential piracy and alternate distribution channels that it enables, and they have been using their large influence in the U.S. congress and elsewhere to get more anti-piracy and strong-copyright laws passed.

These big companies want nothing less than the easy, safe income they used to enjoy. Unfortunately, they can only do this by fighting the free flow of information that makes the internet so wonderful. But the fight against piracy is technically unwinnable as long as an open internet exists, so they invent things like SOPA which contain provisions that are more likely to shut down legitimate sites like YouTube than stop piracy. For example, until two days ago SOPA allowed companies to get DNS entries blocked in the U.S. Any technologist will tell you that this does nothing to stop habitual pirates, it only affects 'casual' users who don't know how to get around the DNS block.

But, part of the controversy is more legitimate, and both sides have very valid points. On the one hand, people absolutely deserve to be paid for their work, and historically copyright has been the mechanism that allowed authors and artists to be paid for their work. Since copyright is almost the only mechanism that the law provides to help people make money for making movies, books, software and music, many people understandably want strong copyright protections. On the other hand, pirate-friendly people point out that copying a work costs virtually nothing, and it doesn't seem fair to be forced to pay for something that actually costs nothing.

Brain-fu says:
If the economy depends on the imposition of artificial scarcity on an abundant good, then the terms have to be reasonable.

20 year copyright term limits are very reasonable. The current term limits + options to extend are absolutely unreasonable, and they drive people to rebellion.

Also, while it is true that a punishment should be a deterrent to crime, the punishment must also be within the order-of-magnitude of actual damages in order to be just. The current punishments are outright ridiculous, and they also drive people to rebellion.

Make fair laws and enforce them fairly, and watch the people happily fall in line.
That's why we should reject SOPA. Copyright laws already punish the fundamental building block of digital technology, copying, in unreasonable ways. So pushing copyright laws further in the same direction is wrongheaded at this point. Instead, we should be looking at how to help authors get paid when they do good work, work that others find useful or worthwhile. And in particular I think we should focus more on paying people more for their work rather than for copies of the final result. Listen to Solandri:
Some industries have already made this transition. Wedding photographers used to shoot weddings for a minimal fee, the charged a large amount for prints and reprints. If you wanted extra copies of your wedding photos for your extended family, you had to pay for the extra prints.

With the advent of scanners and dirt-cheap photo printers, they've transitioned to a model where they charge a lot for shooting the wedding, but charge little for the prints or even give them away for free. Technically they can charge for the prints as they did before, but realistically they know it's so easy to make copies there's no possible way they'd be able to enforce their copyright for every photo the take. So they've just restructured their payment system to reflect reality, rather than copyright laws.

Forget for a moment everything about copyright, publishing, movie/music production, etc. Think of this purely in terms of work vs. compensation. I shoot photos of a wedding and process the photos. That's a lot of work. I print pictures of said wedding. That's very little work. Under the old model, the payment system did not reflect my costs - I charged very little for the part which required a lot of work on my part, but charged a lot for the part which required almost no effort. The new system fixes this. I now charge a lot for the part which requires a lot of work, and charge little for the part which requires little work.

The same thing has got to happen to books, music, and movies. In the old days, musicians and actors were paid for live performances. That is the norm.

In the 20th century there was a bit less than 100 years where technology was good enough to allow mass duplication, but not good enough to lower cost of duplication to the point where individuals could duplicate. This allowed a business model to flourish in which payment did not reflect costs. Musicians and actors were able to work once, then sit back and make money over and over based on that single performance. This is not normal. No other business is like that - you have to constantly work if you want to keep making money.

Now in the 21st century, the cost of mass duplication has fallen far enough that it's now easily within grasp of the individual. No longer does it make sense for people to be charged large amounts of money for what is a nearly free service (duplication). People may be stuck on the morality of it because the 20th century way is all they've ever known. But strictly in terms of work invested vs. compensation, the 20th century way was clearly wrong since the most money was being made for the step which cost the least money.

The transition to a model where content creators are not paid for duplication services is not some new journey into unexplored territory. It is a return to what was the norm for millenia. For most of history, duplication was impossible (performances) or nearly impossible (books), so the only way to get paid was for the actual content creation. During the 20th century, duplication became possible, and content creators leveraged it to get paid multiple times over for the same work. Now in the 21st century duplication has become so cheap that people are starting to question if it's really fair for content creators to be paid multiple times for the same job. That is the true crux of the matter, not who owns the work or whether copying is stealing.

I do believe in copyright - the temporary monopoly does encourage creation. But the terms have to be reasonable. With duplication costs having dropped to almost zero, preventing society from making copies simply because of archaic laws does more harm than good. Something like 10-20 years for copyright seems about right to me. Copyright is fundamentally about encouraging creativity and creation of new content. A copyright term of life + 70 years discourages creativity, and instead encourages trying to figure out how to create something new once and live off it for the rest of your life.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Software Patents: Please Die

Here's why we software developers hate the patent system. We write software for a living. We write tens of thousands of lines of computer code, including some algorithms and techniques that we think are clever and that we are rightly proud of. We go through all the work of testing it, fixing the bugs in it, writing documentation for it, and packaging it up for our users.

Then we find out later that some shmuck wrote several pages of legalese and submitted it to the patent office. This "patent" describes a similar technique to something we did in our software. The shmuck that wrote it didn't have to write tens of thousands of lines of code, didn't have to test it or fix bugs in it, didn't have to package it up for anyone else to use, and only wrote documentation in language that is not intended for the rest of us to understand. But, because he merely described something that we did (as long as he wrote his description before we wrote and packaged up our software), he's entitled to enormous legal damages against us.

Software developers work their asses off to think of ideas and make them reality. But the patent system says it's illegal for me to use the same idea that one single shmuck (among hundreds of millions of other shmucks in this world!) thought of first, as long as that other person earned the name "shmuck" by submitting a patent application. The patent system says I am liable for huge amounts for doing so. And even if you wrote your software before the shmuck wrote his description of it, it might be very costly to prove that in court.

I am proud to have never submitted a patent application, although I don't blame companies for doing so or for buying patents from other companies at great cost. When a company like Apple accuses another company of patent infringement, naturally that other company would like to have their own portfolio of patents with which to fight back. The best defense is a good offense, as they say, which is why all the tech giants are stockpiling patents like never before. The hope is that if one large company accuses you of patent infringement, you can search through your portfolio looking for an idea you "own" that your opponent has also used, and then countersue them.

But then there's the patent trolls, especially non-practising entities. These are companies that buy and own patents and launch lawsuits, but do not make any actual products. They exist specifically to make money from the patent system without contributing anything whatsoever to society. Since they have no products, nobody can countersue them.

Both patent trolls and tech giants like Microsoft often employ a "protection racket" approach to making money on patents. Actually suing someone in court for patent infringement can be risky, since a court battle is expensive to wage, you might lose the case, and if you are a big company, you risk harm to your reputation by trying to make money through lawsuits instead of by making products and innovating. So instead, they seek out companies that make software and basically tell them: you are infringing one or more of our patents. If you pay us, we'll sign this agreement not to sue you.

But if you're a patent troll, there is generally no need to identify a specific patent that the other company is infringing. In fact, it's better if you don't tell them which patent they are infringing! If you tell them, they may simply change their software so that it doesn't infringe the patent. Or worse, they may examine their software and realise that the patent covers something slightly different than what their software actually does, so there never was any infringement, so there is no way you could win a lawsuit against them. That would destroy any possibility of taking their money. So instead, the patent troll or big company will say: we have a giant patent portfolio. For a monthly fee, we will let you use any of the ideas in our patents! Great deal, huh? Of course, if you don't pay us... we can't be held responsible for what will happen to you.

Even better, if you take this approach, you don't even have to figure out whether a target company is infringing your patents or not! You can simply deliver your veiled threats and if they pay you, great! If not, THEN you can do a search through their products and your patents looking for a match. If you find a match, you can pursue them more aggressively. But in any case, you don't legally have to reveal which patent is infringed until you actually file a lawsuit.

This approach need not be limited to software. And the patent system isn't only broken for software. It's just that software is the most obvious field where patents aren't necessary. Software is already protected by strong copyright laws. And the behavior of most software is difficult to analyze and modify because companies (at least the ones that make money selling software) typically use compilers, and possibly obfuscation systems, to transform code from a human-readable code to a merely machine-readable code that is very difficult for anyone to understand. Meanwhile, the original source code is kept secret behind company firewalls. Finally, companies that really don't want their software copied can employ "DRM" copy-protection schemes or (in extreme cases) hardware dongles.

Because we have all these legal and practical protections in place, the most practical way for company A to make software that does the same thing as company B's is to re-implement the software from scratch: company A makes its engineers actually put in the effort to create a totally separate software system. Often the new "software A" is better than the "software B" against which it is competing; or in the case of China it's a low-quality knockoff that isn't very good. The point is, patents simply aren't necessary at all in the software industry. Our intellectual property is protected more than adequately already. The patent system only adds overhead costs, strikes fear into the hearts of individual developers and companies too, and impedes innovation.

Patents are bad for users, too. The costs of patent lawsuits are ultimately passed on to consumers, either because goods cost more to pay for "patent licensing", or because goods cost more to pay for patent lawsuits and lawyers, or because you decide to pay more so you can use features that are exclusive to one company.

An example is Apple's U.S. patent #7,469,381 on elastic bounce-back. You know how, when you swipe your finger in a list on the iPhone, the list keeps scrolling but slows down? That's called kinetic scrolling; luckily it's rumored that it was done in the 90s or earlier, so Apple can't patent that. But when you reach the end of the list, scrolling doesn't stop abruptly; instead it goes a little way beyond the end of the list and "snaps back", and you can even pull a list beyond the normal limit with your finger. Apple does have a patent on that.

Apple is fully within its legal rights to declare that no other phone or computer can offer this same feature. That way they can sell more iPhones because some people will decide to buy iPhone instead of Android because it has a nicer, more polished user interface. But people should understand that if Android doesn't offer this feature, it's only because Apple has a 20-year patent monopoly. Alternately, Apple can allow other companies to offer the feature... for a price. This approach makes competitors' devices cost more, so they make money both on licensing fees and also because more people will buy iPhones when the price of alternatives is a little higher. At first Apple took the first approach, but now they are switching to the second. Apple has dozens of other user-interface patents, on various little "finishing touches" in the iPhone that make its user interface so nice (e.g. a refinement of pinch-and-zoom), but this patent is one of the most valuable.

Another example is Microsoft's patent on long filenames (that is, file names longer than 8 characters). Now Microsoft doesn't have a patent on the mere idea of long filenames; that would be too obvious and predates Microsoft itself. But Microsoft's first operating system, MS-DOS, only supported 8-character filenames with a 3-character extension (such as .txt, .doc or .exe) and no lowercase letters or spaces. Microsoft found a way to overcome this limitation, while maintaining compatibility with MS-DOS. So if you name your file "Super long name", MS-DOS will see a file called "SUPERL~1" while Windows sees the "real" file name. Microsoft has a patent on this technique in their "FAT16" and "FAT32" file systems. Since most removable media use the FAT32 file system, Microsoft can charge for the "priveledge" of supporting long filenames! So, for example, I used to have a DVD player with a USB port. You could plug in a USB stick into this DVD player and play MP3s or show pictures from the USB stick. But the filenames were all 8 characters or less! I guess the company that made the DVD player just saved a little money by not paying Microsoft for their patent. Or more likely I myself saved some money, as the DVD player was pretty inexpensive.

Why isn't this fair? It's not fair because the company probably cannot "innovate around" this problem. If they want to support USB sticks, they have to support FAT32 because everybody uses it. And if they want to support long filenames, there is no way to do that without dealing with Microsoft's patent*. So if a company wants their DVD player to support USB sticks, their choice is either to pay Microsoft (and raise the price of the DVD player by the licensing fee), or not to support long filenames (so the customer pays less, but wonders why the hell the his filenames are messed up.)

* Today I stumbled upon an interesting fact, though: the Samba people have actually innovated around this problem, although they had to break compatibility with MS-DOS to do it. Sometimes there are ways around these patents, but in principle it is possible to make patents that are inescapable--patents on features that can only be implemented one way.

For example, patents recently expired on the compression methods (to reduce file sizes) in the GIF image format and MP3 sound formats (both developed a little over 20 years ago, whereas patents in the U.S. last 20 years). These formats required a specific, patented algorithm, and the algorithm was not licensed for free. Consequently, if you had a way to make GIF files or MP3 files for free, it meant that either you pirated commercial software, or you used free software that used a patented technique illegally.

The GIF case especially angered a lot of software people. The GIF format was intended to be free for use by the people at CompuServe who developed it, and the developers of GIF didn't realize that they had chosen a patented compression technique. The patent owners remained silent for about 7 years, until the GIF format was well-entrenched and popular on the internet, then suddenly declared that everyone would have to pay license fees to them in order to use the format.

When this happened, some angry developers immediately began work on a new file format to replace GIF, called PNG, that did not use the patented technique. The PNG format has more features than GIF and employs new techniques to improve compression, but its core compression algorithm is slightly inferior.

So, I encourage everyone to be suspicious of the patent system, and especially to oppose software patents. G'day.