Space-X patents

Anderson: So what have all your creative people come up with, then? What’s different in your basic technology versus 50 years ago?

Musk: I can’t tell you much. We have essentially no patents in SpaceX. Our primary long-term competition is in China—if we published patents, it would be farcical, because the Chinese would just use them as a recipe book. [Wired]

This is probably a smart idea, but it illustrates the advantages of a working patent system. The inventions and advances that Space-X develops are kept secret. Engineers and scientists around the world can’t look at what they did, think of alternatives or better processes, or license technology and add new innovations on top of it. Without a working patent system, innovators have to obscure what they discover and, as Musk does, say very little. This slows down the progress of science.

Many of the critics of the patent system have a peculiar idea that there is some powerful advantage to being the first to market for a new idea.  There is not. If Space-X gave its recipes away, Chinese and European companies would copy and cut into their market.  Maybe eventually US companies would do the same thing (or put flags on something made in China and mark it up). Anyone who thinks that Space-X could successfully sell rockets that were equivalent to or even not a lot better than those being sold by Lockheed has no idea how markets work. There is a nice sounding myth about how “agile” and “innovative” producers will by some magic be able to outcompete larger companies that copy their work and have far greater marketing, production, and distribution systems (and better political connections). That’s not how hardball works.

 

 

 

 

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Patents considered harmful, by some.

That’s not how it looks from here but I think part of the muddiness in the software patent argument is the result of arguments that really attack the entire idea of patents but are advanced as being specific to software patents. The whole idea of a patent is that you do foster innovation and competition by “handing out monopolies”. Maybe that idea is wrong, but if you think it is wrong you are likely opposed to patents – period.  Tim Lee and many of the other

Famous anti-innovation patenter.
Famous anti-innovation patenter.

people who dislike software patents confuse the issue by simultaneously claiming that (1) software patents are inherently worse/different than other patents and (2) that software patents choke off innovation because of properties that turn out to apply to all patents. Opposing patents in general, however, is a more radical proposition than opposing software patents – perhaps more a more radical proposition than people feel comfortable making.

My position is that many patents are wrongly granted for “inventions” that are neither novel nor un-obvious and that the system for adjudicating patents is way too slow, error prone, and expensive. But patents themselves serve a useful purpose.  The obvious example is Excel which is effectively a monopoly without the benefit of any patents at all. The work of the innovators was, without patent protection, rapidly copied by companies with better marketing and greater resources. Innovation stopped. End of story.

And “business method” patents, in general, are not really software or computer patents at all. Usually they are efforts to patent a well known method of doing business adding some technology to the mix to buttress a claim of novelty. One could have similarly claimed a hundred years ago that making sales calls via telephone was an invention or that delivering adverts by TV instead of by radio was an invention.

 

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Patent Reform modest proposal.

Companies over a certain size should be required to show that they have evaluated a patent claim from a small entity in good faith. That is, if they get a claim that they are infringing, they should be required to show in court that they looked at it seriously and tried to find out if they were infringing or not. Failure to do so would should trigger some financial penalties. The intent is to prevent a big company from relying on the cost of litigation and the resource mismatch to simply blow off legit patent assertions.

What are patents for

Mr. R.J. Hall designed a new product known as a “Towel Tote” that is basically an absorbent scarf with pockets on the ends.  [See one here]. After filing his design patent application, Hall e-mailed with Mr. Farley Nachemin at Bed Bath & Beyond (BB&B) to see whether the company would retail his product.  Nachemin is a VP at BB&B and is employed as the General Merchandise Manager. Nachemin showed interest and two later met face-to-face. In the meetings and e-mails Hall made clear that the patent was pending. However, instead of moving forward with Hall, BB&B (with direct participation from Nachemin) mailed Hall’s product to Pakistan and had it copied and manufactured for retail distribution back in the US.

From Patentlyo

 

Apple's Patents possibly covering android

Apple’s initial legal victory over rival HTC in a patent infringement suit could pave the way for Apple to collect high royalties from devices running Google Android, according to one analysis.

Mike Abramsky with RBC Capital Markets believes that Apple has the upper hand over HTC, which is a smaller handset maker with a limited portfolio of intellectual property. As such, Apple could potentially push for an injunction and ask the U.S. International Trade Commission to bar the import of HTC handsets.

Instead, Abramsky believes it’s more likely that Apple will try to establish a high royalty precedent on Android devices. He said the iPhone maker could garner a deal that’s similar to or even higher than the $5 per unit that Microsoft collects on HTC Android devices.

From Apple Insider

$5 a unit. Wow.  But Apple has some remarkable technology covered by the patents at issue. For example

When the handler 44 requests a facsimile transmission, for example, the real-time function block issues commands to start the real-time engine and install the various modules that are needed for it to function as a virtual telephone. Binary facsimile image data is transferred to the real-time engine via the FIFO buffers, where it is encoded as PCM data which is further encoded according to the transport medium over which it is to be transmitted. If the adapter is connected to a telephone line, for example, these signals can be encoded as 16-bit pulse-code modulated (PCM) samples, and forwarded directly to the adapter 36 via the serial driver 42 . Alternatively, if the transport medium is an ISDN line, the modem signals are encoded as mulaw-companded 8-bit PCM signals. The different types of encoding are stored in different tables, and the appropriate one to be used by the real-time engine is installed by the real-time function block during the initial configuration of the engine and/or designated by the API 48 at the time the command to transform the data is issued.

Too stunning. There should be a Nobel prize in there – at least. Take a look.

 

Meaning of concurrent programs and IP

Most of the new draft of the Concurrent Programs paper has to do with trying to specify problems and solutions in synchronization via an atomic  “compare and swap” operation. Even these operations are surprisingly complicated once put under the microscope – or not so surprisingly complicated if you think about the details of using or implementing them. But at the end of the paper, I start to describe the fundamental difference in approach between this work and “formal methods”  in terms of how we can view a program. Dijkstra seems to me to have made an error by insisting that we should think of a program as a mathematical object and a programmer as a mathematician of sorts. A program is more of a manufactured object.

Even though it has no weight and is invisible, a program is device of sorts.  If we think of a program as a mathematical object, the methods of formal logic – of meta-mathematics – are the natural methods to use. If we think of a program as a device, like a piano or a bathtub or an automobile, then what mathematicians call “foundational questions” are far away. People are very resistant to the idea of a program as a “thing” for the obvious reasons, but mathematical objects don’t have the weird properties and defects of manufactured objects (or physical objects for that matter). A ball bearing is not a sphere and an implementation of a stack is not an ordered sequence. Recursion in programs is different from recursion in mathematical functions: f(0):=1, f(x+1):= (x+1)*f(x) is  a complete definition of a mathematical object but only an approximation of some of the properties of the program written the same way. Any programmer will know that f(10000) almost certainly fails – and that’s an important part of the specification of the program.

The confusion between programs and mathematical objects is a pervasive obstacle in fields as apparently unrelated as program verification, software pricing, and patent law. In program verification we bog down in foundational methods of formal logic because that is the obvious tool to study mathematical objects, but it’s certainly not the obvious tool for doing mathematics or describing manufactured objects.   In software pricing, the resistance of manufacturers to let mere software figure in to costs in terms of how complex it is and how much it adds to value rather than by weight repeatedly leads to product development schedules that invest too little time and/or money in the most important components. In patent law, confusion between unpatentable mathematical methods and technology for programs is used to deny software innovators the same rights that are uncontroversially granted to innovators who design cardboard boxes