Intellectual cold war

Like most companies with a clue these days, Microsoft is filing patents. And why not, it’s essentially free money, plus you build up a defensive litigation portfolio. Microsoft has filed over 2,000 patents for consideration in 2004, and plan to break that record in 2005. New York Times points out that Microsoft patents are cited as prior art “in other patent filings somewhat more often than the patents of other technology companies,” including patent-lovin’ IBM.

Patently Obvious points out that MS employs 29 patent attorneys and 2 patent agents – a respectable amount of IP firepower.

All these filings have got the open source crowd a bit worried, as patents can be used defensively and offensively. Open Source Risk Management LLC gathers that, while there are no court-tested patents that could be used against Linux, there are 283 untested patents – 60 of them owned by IBM, 27 of them owned by MS – could possibly be used to sue Linux developers. OSRM does urge calm: “It’s very similar to the result you would get if you investigated any other software program that’s as successful.”

This does suggest that for Linux to avoid death by patent lawsuit in the future, it should also stockpile its own patents. Dan Ravicher, a patent attorney that works for OSRM and the Public Patent Foundation, does point out that nearly half of all patent infringement suits are won in favour of the defendants, making legal challenges against Linux quite risky. So maybe the best course of action is to get some legal advice, but keep churning out that code.

Creative ownership

id Software’s highly anticipated game Doom 3 uses a graphics technique for rendering stencil shadows called “Carmack’s reverse”, named after its author and id Software’s rockstar head developer, John Carmack.

Apparently this did not stop Creative Labs, noted makers of the SoundBlaster soundcards, from quietly patenting Carmack’s algorithm with the USPTO in October 1999. This recently came to a head when HardOCP noted an awkwardly-written Creative/id Software press release that spoke of a cross-licensing deal. The jist of the story was this: Creative lets id Software use their own algorithm without getting sued, and id Software agrees to use Creative’s EAX HD audio in subsequent games.

There may also be some prior art, with nVidia’s Sim Dietrich pointing out he publicly described a similar technique earlier in 1999 (at a Creative developers forum, no less). Creative asserts they invented it first. Not like it matters – launching a legal defence requires lawyers, and lawyers cost a lot of money. Carmack chose the path of least resistance, although he told Beyond3D he’s not exactly super-happy about the whole thing.

Even the open source community, afraid of having to face future litigation from companies snatching up patents on common coding techniques, have urged FLOSS developers to fight fire with fire, and preemptively patent everything they write.

Ex-patent lawyer and EFF staff attorney Jason Schultz opines that such patents get through the system due to a staggering backlog, although this doesn’t answer the ugly question: should you be able to patent software? Software patents are valid in the USA and Japan, and is currently being considered by the EU.

Do software patents stifle or promote innovation? I’m not qualified to answer that, but I do notice that Creative just got a sweet deal with minimal exertion on their part.

Gold rush

Formerly codenamed ComboBox and Goldrush, we’ve heard only rumours and murmurs about the impending VDSL rollout in eastern Canada. This has all changed, as I saw this URL in the Metro paper today.

These news come on the heels of Bell Canada requesting a Posted in universe

Smoke and mirrors and portals

Sympatico/MSN held a BBQ at Yonge-Dundas Square to celebrate their launch of the Sympatico.MSN.ca “superportal”. On hand were burgers, hotdogs, ice cream bars, mini-compass keychains that don’t work, and baseball caps. The homeless never ate so well; one fellow was helping himself to fistfuls of ketchup packets. On hand for entertainment were the AntiGravity troupe, with men on “AntiGravity Boots”, trapeze artists, and trampoline acrobats.

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You think they overdid it? Naaah.

Shoulders of giants for rent

Did you know that US and EU copyright laws now extends creator’s rights to their deaths plus 70 years…effectively perpetuity? Or that Canadians enjoys cheaper meds than the USA, due to Canada’s anti-pricefixing laws? I’ve been reading Boing Boing‘s Cory Doctorow (and former Torontonian) argue for reform in today’s intellectual property laws for a few months now, and he’s always impressed me in how he makes his case.

If you ever wanted the 5-Minute University on Intellectual Property, look no further than Wired’s colour centerfolds on trends and statistics in piracy, medicine, genetics, and my current topic de force, open source.

Doctorow feels that current IP restrictions stifles innovation, and it’s hard to disagree in this age of idiotic software patents and the RIAA’s intimidating lawsuits. He sums it up quite well in this letter, where he points out that the self-righteous copyright owners of today were the pirates of yesteryear:

“…filmmakers (who enthusiastically violated Edison’s film patents), broadcasters (who played records without permission or payment), cablecasters (who pirated free-to-air signals for their networks) and even hybrid entertainment/electronics companies (like Sony, whose piratical VCR was characterized by the motion-picture people as the certain death of the film industry) are all standing shoulder to shoulder in the fight against programmers and ordinary citizens who have, once again, discovered a better way to distribute and reproduce creative works.

“It’s no surprise that these pirates of the entertainment industry want to pull the ladder up behind them and dog the hatch. After all, the traditional role of inventors has been to create massive new revenue opportunities for the entertainment industry, and the traditional response of the entertainment companies has been to seek legislative relief from those opportunities….

“In a world where 80 percent of the music ever recorded isn’t available for sale
anywhere, the P2P networks have revived what is, quite literally, the largest
library of human creativity ever assembled.”

The butterfly flies tonight

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This souvenir came in the mail today. It’s coming. It’s the Sympatico.MSN.ca website. Apparently the portal folks over at Queen’s Quay have been burning the midnight oil on this one. Hopefully they did right this time. Here’s to you folks, this all better be worth it.

Update: Nice site, although My Page doesn’t work in Mozilla and GetEmail seems to be down for most folks. Email passwords are also being transmitted unencrypted?!

Changes are three-fold:

  • new Sympatico MSN portal, with special customized version for Sympatico subscribers
  • MSN Premium software (free or by subscription, it’s not clear)
  • Sympatico Mail Enhanced by MSN (kinda like a Hotmail/GetEmail combo)

I was in the beta. Meh, it’s all about brand strategy.

Feet of clay

Two Jeffs stirring the pot this week:

An MBA not the cat’s meow after all?

“There are now so many schools churning out graduates, but demand for MBAs has stayed constant or fallen…”

Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote a paper called “The End of Business Schools? Less Success Than Meets the Eye” where he postulates that getting an MBA may not be as valuable as first thought. Anyone remember that FedEx commercial where the newly-minted junior executive has to fill out package slips his first day on the job? “But I’m an MBA!” he protests. “Ohhhh,” his manager realizes. “Then I better show you how to do it.”

“No one disputes that an MBA from a highly prestigious school such as Harvard, Wharton, Chicago, or Stanford can lead to high pay, partly because of the great contacts students make there. Still, Pfeffer cites study after study strongly suggesting that this is because those schools are so hard to get into (and so costly once you get there), only the best and brightest fast-trackers have a shot. In other words, they are people who most likely would have succeeded whether they went to B-school or not.”

Microsoft not the bee’s knees after all?

“The Web

Don’t interrupt, use word of mouse

Finished reading new-age marketing mogul Seth Godin‘s Unleashing the Ideavirus. The first trick to releasing an ideavirus is to call your concept a peculiar name, such as “ideavirus”. The second trick is to then make people read 104 pages of your book to find out what you’re talking about and realize that “ideavirus” is just your pet name for “word of mouth advertising, via the Internet”. Next, litter the pages with URLs of past books you’ve written and companies you are connected to. Step 4: PROFIT!

So Seth practices what he preaches, but what he preaches is not earth-shattering. Current advertising techniques, which he calls “Interruption Marketing”, basically involves pouring scads of money into commercials and ads in an attempt to harass people into buying something. Spammers and telemarketers take interruption marketing to its logical extremes by shotgunning ads to unwilling eyeballs and ears, with the absurd notion that any exposure is positive exposure. As customer resistance increases, marketers just turn up the heat – which is why you now see adverts hanging over urinals, bigger and more garish web banners, and corporate names stuck on sport stadiums. And we were this close to getting billboards on gravestones, I kid you not.

However, Godin argues that marketing through memes costs much less money and can be much more effective. By quietly distributing it to the trendsetters, key influencers or “sneezers”, your idea can spread to a large target audience (the “hive”). To keep the idea contagious, the idea must be easy to pass along (“smoothness”) and aimed at the right people (“vector”). The beauty is, everyone that is targeted by the ideavirus actually want to hear your message. Godin cites Hotmail’s little sig at the bottom of each Hotmail email and Amazon’s referral program as choice examples.

The Internet has launched a many-to-many proliferation of digital samizdat. Every day, people online are dissecting and discussing products and services. As David Weinberger passionately evoked on CSPAN (Jon Udell helpfully provides the pertinent part of the video here), when he was looking for a washer/dryer, he went to “every company’s website…Google”. In minutes, he discovered an ongoing discussion on the very model he was looking for. The commentary was merciless, unsanitized, and most importantly – human and trustworthy.

Several companies have tried their hand at creating their own memes or viral campaigns, such as Burger King’s cheeky Subservient Chicken website, or Volvo’s faux documentary “The Mystery of Dalaro”. A groundbreaking Internet scavenger hunt based on Kubrick and Spielberg’s A.I. spawned an entire fanbase called the Cloudmakers to solve it. (The storyline in the game is far more interesting than the one in the movie too, IMHO).

One company, BzzAgent LLC, believes they can make a business out of paying “buzzers” to become digitally-accelerated Mary Kays.

Marketers ignore the many-to-many social phenomenon at their peril, as the movie industry found out. If you make a crappy movie, everyone will know before you say “Gigli”. Deceiving your customers is even worse; those who think they can artificially create an ideavirus may be in for a nasty surprise. Ideaviruses cut both ways; all the spindoctoring in the world won’t wash. “Any attempts to escape the new transparency will ultimately prove futile,” David Kilpatrick writes. “Build a business that will not be injured by the disclosure of data.”

Can it work in a positive manner? It depends on the idea and its execution. Amusingly, half of the dotcoms Godin cites as sucessfully using the ideavirus had perished shortly after this book was published in 2001. Even Godin fumbles when he released “The Big Red Fez” in 2002. He promised Ideavirus readers he would release the book for free online to generate buzz, or he would write an explanation of why his ideavirus strategy failed. If you check that site today, there’s no ebook, and a link promising the said explanation only goes to his blog’s main page.

So, basically the book was on tactical marketing methods designed to make you part with more of your hard-earned money. But since advertising is here to stay, I’d rather have the less annoying kinds.

Two top ten lists for today

Doblin Group’s Ten types of innovation. I am amused that both Starbucks and Walmart are used as examples in innovating via process. Starbucks innovates by supporting their workforce, generating an atmosphere of hip, happy employees. On the other hand, Walmart innovates by optimizing their processes and screwing their employees, so they can deliver the cheapest stuff you’ll find on this green earth.

As an aside, FastCompany also has a link to Doblin co-founder Larry Keeley’s “Ten Commandments for Success on the Net”. Written in 1996(!), it describes how the decentralized and transparent nature of the Internet has changed the logic of business. This is what we’re seeing today in the open source phenomenon.