Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill
policy-making, technical standards development, and technological
innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we
know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property
conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of
copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying
and the law, and more.
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this weblog are those of the authors and not of their respective institutions.
People may recall that when the Whitehouse.gov petition on unlocking got enough signatures to require a response, the Administration said "yes, we support that but we can't do anything about it because the Librarian is part of the Legislative branch, so sorry." And in fact, that appears to be the Librarian's position as well, as the posting quotes Congressional testimony from the Librarian saying, for example, that the office is “a unique part of the Legislative Branch of the government.”
the Library of Congress is “an executive Department,” and the Librarian himself is “subject to plenary oversight by the President.”
ORLY? Why would they want to argue that? Because, as the cell-phone case shows, the Librarian has been vested with authority to execute - that is, carry out the enforcement of - copyright legislation. This is done via the Librarian appointing the Registrar of Copyrights and the judges of the Copyright Royalty Board. And the Administration wants that to continue because this provides them a convenient arm's-length distance from the mess that enforcing those laws is creating.
It's pretty well understood by Constitutional scholars that such appointment powers should reside only with the Executive. Congress can advise and consent, including blocking appointments over which it has advisory power, but the Legislative branch under our government cannot take the initiative to appoint those people who will execute the laws, nor those who sit in judgment over them. Congress hears nominations for judicial offices on the basis of Executive-branch desires to appoint, and that includes judges of copyright.
As noted above, this case is still only at the petition stage, but there's hope that if SCOTUS takes it, the Court will unravel this knot by making a clear decision. Once they do that it will be clear that the Administration has the power to enforce copyright laws and they will no longer be able to weasel out of public demand for changes in how enforcement is done. New legislation to fix the underlying laws is still welcome, but this case could create a bright line that will force Obama to choose between the public and his Cartel funders. Sadly, I have a suspicion he'll end up on the wrong side of that line again.
I don't plan to write much about this because I know the named defendants and many of the John Does personally but I wanted to point out how Masnick's column illustrates something important: If you are involved in an IP-related legal action, get a lawyer who knows that part of the business. Monsarrat's lawyer-partner Mark Ishman apparently does not, which results in a serious, and epic-level funny takedown from lawyer Dan Booth. Booth and his firm Booth Sweet LLP (not LLC as printed) have been involved in fighting the Prenda nonsense and thus know a thing or two about copyright laws and their abuses.
A significant chunk of the takedown involves Booth schooling Ishman, who is no doubt a fine lawyer in his own area but appears not to know jack squat about copyright law. If you've got IP litigation on your mind, make sure you've got IP-savvy counsel, too.
The basic idea is that if someone makes a video of themselves playing a Nintendo game and uploads it to YouTube any ads shown with that video will be of Nintendo's choosing and revenue from it will flow to Nintendo. Ads may appear beside the videos or actually be inserted before and after the video when people go to play it.
The problem here is that "Let's Play" style videos are a pervasive form of information and sharing throughout the industry. I did a quick YouTube search for "let's play" for this blog post and got back over 9.1 million hits. People create these videos to show off their skills, to highlight interesting things they've seen such as game "easter eggs", to provide guides or walk-throughs, or just to share a bit of fun with friends. There are a few professional or semi-professional games writers who use this style of video to promote themselves or their channels, but they are a tiny minority of that nine million.
Nintendo has positioned its action as a gentler approach; rather than trying to ban content related to Nintendo games, they just want to make money off it by changing the video that an individual uploaded. Yeah, um, guys that's not a whole lot better. It also comes across as cheap and lazy - rather than creating content for YouTube that fans and players would want to watch, Nintendo is just taking over other peoples' content.
Museums are somewhat infamous for trying to stop people taking pictures of famous paintings on display. Some museums forbid flash photography with the argument that thousands of flashes would inevitably damage works that are often carefully hung with special lighting and protective surfaces. But, really, stopping me taking a snap of a modern steel sculpture? What's going on there?
The very bigness of the deal may be compelling a change. Back in the day it was just one guy with a camera in hand; now it's everyone with every cellphone and point-and-shoot. Trying to police all of them is both taxing on limited museum resources and ultimately futile anyway. So, according to Miranda, museums are loosening their policies and trying to become part of the social media conversations themselves, publishing Tumblrs and having their own Instagrams.
Enter copyright. Museums often restrict their open-access photography to their permanent collections, over which they tend to have complete control. But loaned and traveling exhibits, which can be the biggest draws, often come with copyright restrictions and photos published online - even if non-commercially - can be considered infringing derivative works. To combat this, museums need to work directly on these rights issues with the holders; for example, they can negotiate exemptions that permit non-commercial reproduction while agreeing to help rights-holders track down people who are trying to make money off the photos.
Miranda's column doesn't discuss one area that I think is crucial: public education. Given that we are constantly bombarded by messages in movies, on TV, on DVDs, etc that all reproduction is bad, I believe it's an important part of this mission to help people understand what is and is not allowed. Might we even say, "teach about fair use"?
The story starts with how the T shirt's hue is copied (or inspired by) predictions of trending influences, and elements like colors that are associated with those influences, and goes into a discussion about how the entire fashion industry lives around a copying and imitation model. This is, from a conventional protectionist-thought school, heresy. IP protection exists, protectionists would say, in order to encourage innovation. IP protection gives innovators time to reap benefits of their work. Without such protection, what is the incentive to create?
Well, in fashion, it appears that not only is there incentive to copy - everyone wants to get on the popular trends - there's incentive to differentiate. You want to be identified with a look, or group, or crowd, but not be an identical Mao-suited clone. So innovation begins as variations on a theme, and grows into whole new trends, all without the benefit of much IP protection.
It's an interesting story and challenges us to remember that most of what we consider today to be great works - from the plays of Shakespeare to the sculptures of Michaelangelo - were created in eras when intellectual property protection was unknown or much weaker. Remembering that, we have to wonder whether IP protection truly serves to promote innovation, or simply to promote profit on innovation. Both are important, but they're not the same thing and that's worth keeping in mind.
The 'yes' side was written by Martin Goetz, himself an inventor and entrepreneur. So far as anyone can tell, Goetz holds the first-ever software patent. The 'no' side was written by Brian J. Love, an IP law professor from Santa Clara University School of Law. So far as I can tell, Professor Love does not actually litigate or make patent applications, so this is sort of a mismatch of real-world practitioner versus theorist. I guess it won't surprise many readers that I consider the real-world practitioner to have the stronger arguments.
In particular, Goetz makes the singular point that "software and hardware are interchangeable" and that it's an implementation decision which bits of an invention go in software versus which bits go in hardware. This remains the key point I have yet to see anti-software patent people argue clearly against.
Goetz is, I think, one-sided in claiming purely that patents are effective protection for innovations. Here Love is on more solid ground as we have ample real-world examples of patents (software and otherwise) being used to stifle innovation and that the rapid pace of technological innovation is not suited for the more leisurely and extended protection that patents offer. Goetz might, I think, agree in principle but as a pragmatist he points out that there are no other means available. Both men agree that the system is flawed and needs fixing.
There are two proposals starting the crawl toward daylight, both of which could reshape our interactions with certain digital media and devices. Unfortunately, while one would move us forward, one would be a giant step back. Let's look at both.
We now have a supposedly independent standards body, which ought to be acting in the best interest of the net community and the Web itself, acting to promote useless and harmful solutions to problems nobody but big content companies wants "solved". As the EFF pointed out in its petition to W3C, the purpose of the consortium is to promote openness, not standardize controls on people's content, nor promote a playing field for DRM plug-ins.
The bill (PDF copy here posted by EFF) would implement a couple of common-sense measures as exemptions built into the law, rather than requiring repeated requests for exemptions. First, the law would be changed to say that if you're doing something legal then it's still legal even if you have to get around DRM to do it. In essence, it narrows the bill's definition of what constitutes "circumvention" so that people who want to do things we agree ought to be legal (such as jailbreaking a cell phone) can do that. In fact, phone unlocking is called out specifically in the bill's new list of exempt activities.
In addition, the bill would specifically allow people to make and sell devices (programs) that circumvent digital locks for legal purposes. The canonical example of this, of course, is the program that lets you unlock your e-book so it can be accessed by an audio reader. Vision-impaired book readers rejoice! Reading a book via a device that converts it to audio has always been legal for printed books, but DRM locks stopped that on e-books. Under this bill, the purpose of the circumvention would be a key factor - you still won't be able to break DRM in order to make illegal copies.
Finally, the bill sets up a time clock and requires reporting on Section 1201's "effectiveness." One of the facts noticed when the whole cell phone kerfuffle blew up is that the DMCA itself predates cell phones. It's possible that the bill requires further revision as technology progresses so gathering further data seems like an excellent plan.
There has been a lot written already about last week's Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit "decision" in CLS Bank v. Alice Corporation and I'm sure there's more to come as people dig into the details of the full house of opinions.
First a bit of background for those new to this game: CAFC is supposed to be the highest court in the land when it comes to patent matters. It's true that their decisions can be appealed to SCOTUS - and lots of commenters are hoping SCOTUS takes this one if only to restore some illusion of sanity - but mostly their decisions stand. Frankly, the Supreme Courts' rulings in recent patent cases don't give me any reason to believe they'd be any help here.
As the highest patent court, CAFC ought to be bringing clarity to the situation, setting out good guidelines that people can follow to know if their inventions are patentable and how to draw up valid patent claims. Whether you are pro- or anti-software patents, you want to know what the rules of the game are. This decision is like the CAFC is playing Calvinball with different rules depending on which judge you read.
We got no more than five judges of 10 agreeing on anything. Those who claim this is a victory for one side or the other are smoking something. The CAFC itself seems to have been desperate to come up with something to say en banc so they said it but who the heck knows what it will apply to. I'm sure we'll see endless interpretations and re-interpretations as lower courts struggle through this.
Some commentators have blamed the problem on there being only 10 judges and the fact that judicial nominees are being held up, including for CAFC. It's possible that if more judges had been available we might have emerged with a true majority opinion, but I tend to doubt it. The problem I see is rooted in the laws themselves, with which the judges continue to struggle. As I noted back in the Mayo decision discussion, judges seem to confuse 35 U.S.C. 101 and 35 U.S.C. 103. These two sections of the code try to specify what is patentable, but don't set out criteria anyone seems able to understand or follow. And computers just make it worse.
The 101 criteria is supposed to bar things that are 'abstract'. Back in the day when there was a nice distinction between "ideas" and "machines" this made sense. If someone had an idea they couldn't patent that; when they built a machine that operated based on their idea, the machine was the thing they went to patent. Then along came computers and pretty much everything became both abstract (programs, code, algorithms) and non-abstract (programs, code, machines) at more or less the same time. Trying to determine how 101 applies to computer programs, systems, machines, and operations is what leads to messes like this.
If I had my way I'd wave my magic wand and repeal 101 entirely. It feels like 102 and 103 are sufficient to give us guidance and I can't imagine that simplifying the laws would lead to worse outcomes than we have today. This might not make happy those people who want to ban software patents and think 101 is required for that, but I don't think we're making progress in that direction and certainly we're not making coherent progress in any direction.
On the surface CopyTele looks like a typical NPE, asserting a couple of encryption-related patents against Skype, which Microsoft owns. CopyTele, as a small company, doesn't have the resources to sue a larger company which can afford to pay lawyers to keep patent claims tied up for years before any trial. This is a common technique big companies use to fend off smaller claimants - just run the smaller companies out of money and the problem goes away.
CopyTele is no white knight - they're overtly out to make money - but at the moment they're the only way that the little guy has of getting anything for their work. Like a lot of companies, CopyTele was not very good at making and marketing products. Having a good and novel idea - good enough to get a couple patents at least - is not the same as being able to thrive in business. CEOs make bad decisions, recessions happen, investors get cold feet - the list of reasons for a company with a good idea to fail goes on and on.
So what else are they to do? Closing up shop and vanishing is certainly going to happen, but that leaves the question of what to do with the company's good ideas. If they can - through the NPE - make some money off them, should that automatically be disallowed? I tend to think not. If we assume that the patents are good and validly granted then they represent the embodiment of innovation and hard work. For another company to make use of that innovation and hard work CopyTele ought to be able to get some form of compensation, such as by sale or license. Which brings us back around to the patent monetization entity.
A long time ago I made an analogy between patents and cars. Certainly people use cars to commit crimes. Cars are responsible for a lot of deaths. People use cars in all kinds of irresponsible ways (hang up the damned phone and drive!). But none of that causes us to want to abolish cars. Likewise, I do not think that the abuses of some NPEs are a reason we ought to abolish patents, software or otherwise. But surely some sort of (possibly stringent) regulation is required.
I name this test in honor of Greg Aharonian of PATNEWS who has been raging about the crap coming out of the USPTO for longer than I've been blogging. The test is simple: if it fails at its most basic function, it's not suitable material for patent discussion.
In an email sent out today Greg has pointed out that the PTO's database of its own patents fails this test. The patent database is both accessible to the public and used by examiners. As I noted last time, one reason we might point to for bad patents being issued by the PTO is that examiners do not have adequate tools to do their jobs properly.
This query asks for patents where (at least one of) the inventors are in the country of Panama. Go ahead, give it a try. I'll wait.
Right, so if you're like Greg and me you'll notice that the PTO's database fails to perform even this simple query properly. Some of the answers appear to be because of substring matching (bad implementation of the search algorithm); others appear to be because of incorrect data in the patent records themselves (bad quality control). Regardless of the cause, it's clear that this tool fails here, which leads one to wonder how badly it fails on other queries. If patent examiners aren't finding relevant prior art maybe we ought to give them the right (tested) tools and (quality supervised) data to make that possible, eh?
This has been well-covered elsewhere. I just wanted to point out - thanks to Ken White at Popehat - that the Judge clearly understood how Prenda were taking advantage of the horrible state of copyright law in the US. "[Prenda] discovered the nexus of antiquated copyright laws, paralyzing social stigma, and unaffordable defense costs [...] So now, copyright laws originally designed to compensate starving artists allow, starving attorneys in this electronic-media era to plunder the citizenry."
The suit seeks a declaratory judgment that Aereo does not infringe CBS's copyrights, which is what the 2nd Circuit said. The suit is filed in New York in part because that's where the original suit was tried and because part of Aereo's complaint is that by threatening to sue everywhere, CBS is both "venue shopping" and trying to evade the ruling against it in the original court. In general courts look poorly on those kinds of legal shenanigans so they may well get their declaratory judgment, but I don't think that's going to stop CBS.
The list of news topics about laws and problems grows week by week: computer intrusion laws being overbroad, DMCA exemptions not being granted for everyday activity with technologies, patent trolling, maximalist copyrighting - all ultimately come down to the laws' failure to keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology and online social/commerce activities. A pair of recent news stories makes it look like Congress might actually be gearing up to do something.
However, a review such as this is almost certain to include public hearings, which provides an opportunity for organizations concerned about how badly the Obama administration has handled these issues to get their grievances heard, and garner some publicity. It's one thing to careen from crisis (CISPA) to crisis (TPP) and another to be able to present a coherent view of what a modernized IP regime should look like. Hearings are the place to do that.
Over on the patent side, Senator Charles Schumer announced his intention to file a bill addressing patent trolling. His idea is to expand the realm in which defendants can ask for PTO review of patents before trial. That's not particularly novel, and again fails to address the problem of bad patent issuance, but it is a step in the right direction. PTO review is often directed by courts or requested after courts have invalidated some or all of a patent's claims. Clogging up the PTO with more reviews isn't going to help, but if this works right the number of reviews will remain about the same and companies (and the public) will be spared the time and expense of some IP-related litigation.
The site got knocked offline by a barrage of spam comments. Thanks to Hylton and the Corante staff for cleaning up the mess and getting us moving again. There are two entries now published that were from May 3rd and I'll work on clearing the backlog tomorrow and the rest of this week.
It's important to remember that despite its meteoric rise in the past few years, self-publishing is not (yet?) a true alternative to major publishing houses. It's a complement. Publishers are often focused on 'name' authors, and blockbuster publications that can get placed on visible list like the NY Times Bestsellers and can bring in large dollars. That shuts out a lot of smaller-audience and specialty publications that can do quite well in the self-published marketplace. So, yay self-publishing, particularly since that avenue tends to be DRM-free from the word go.
But we have not yet seen any other big publisher follow in Macmillan/Tor's footsteps and that's just ridiculous. Look, guys, DRM isn't helping you, it isn't securing you any sales, and it is locking you in and your customers out. Cut that out.
First, the patent office (examiner) should be finding this prior art. Why that's not happening is complex, but a first approximation would be that the examiner isn't well enough trained, doesn't have enough time to examine each application thoroughly, and doesn't have enough or adequate tools at hand. All three of these causes have been discussed on various boards and blogs frequented by examiners. The solutions are pretty obvious, and any attempt at patent reform that doesn't discuss examiner training, production quotas, and available search tools is defective from the start.
Second, the patent applicant is supposed to conduct an adequate prior art review themselves and should be liable for submitting patent applications without such reviews. In fact, the way the law is set up rewards deliberate blindness. Since you have to disclose any prior art you know about, it's safer not to know about any prior art. The result is a raft of idiotic submissions made with completely inadequate prior art information. We know this to be the case because a reasonably competent person with access to Google, Medlib, or the Science Citation Index can often find something not disclosed on the patent application.
This problem is less straightforward to fix. Increasing penalties for bad prior art disclosures only reinforces the willful ignorance problem. I've suggested before that any application with zero non-patent prior art citations should be rejected out of hand by the USPTO. That would cut out a large chunk of the obvious crap but doesn't encourage the positive behavior we all want, which is inventors doing good thorough searches before applications. My social-software nerd brain thinks we ought to let the USPTO develop some kind of reputation system, and allow applicants with good reputations to get priority examinations, but it would take a fair bit of work to design a fair reputation system that was resistant to gaming by people both outside and inside the Patent Office.
On release day, Greenheart not only put up legitimate copies but a "cracked" version on a popular torrent site. Unfortunately for those who took the torrented free version over the for-pay legal version, the crack disguised a hidden logic bomb. Those who played the cracked version found that their in-game studios constantly went bankrupt due to piracy. People complained about it on various gaming boards and got a large round of "no duh" and other kinds of head-slaps.
This was, of course, a not particularly subtle jibe at those whose taking of free copies of games is harming independent developers. Indies often have to front a good deal of their own money to develop a title and if it doesn't sell they take the loss. Indies also tend to have fewer and lower-cost titles on offer, meaning their revenue streams can be hurt much more by lack of sales - whether that's due to bad reviews, bad gaming experiences, or illegal copying.
Unfortunately, the experiment suffered from being highly atypical. Most indie games are released through third-party services such as Steam or Green Man Gaming and this one was only available to Windows 8 users via Microsoft's service, or to people who knew about the game and went directly to Greenheart's own Web site. This severely limited the possibility of legally acquiring the game and so the comparisons of absolute numbers of legal downloads versus pirated are probably not representative.
A friend pointed me to an alarmed posting in the British Journal of Photography. The column, by Olivier Laurent, outlines the potential highly negative impacts particularly for photographers of a new copyright framework that is wending its way through the British legal approval process.
The original goal of the framework is laudable: find a way for people to be able to make use of orphaned works - those items presumed to be under copyright but whose owners cannot be located. As copyright terms continue to be extended more and more work exists in this weird limbo state - someone has the rights, but may not even know it or be interested in defending those rights reuse of these works wouldn't harm anyone, but is still forbidden by the default copyright regime.
Unfortunately, it appears from Laurent's summary that this initial intention has been implemented in a particularly dangerous way for photographers and this has led to a large group of people and organizations concerned with photography - everyone from the Thomson Reuters news agency, the massive Getty and Corbis image archives on down - to try and stop this framework from becoming law.
The issue seems to be that the framework does not contain strong enough requirements on someone who wants to determine if a photograph is orphaned. In particular, it appears that an absence of photographic file metadata may be taken as indicating an image is not copyrighted. Even if the text of, say, a blog post using an image contains copyright/ownership information, image searches often present the pictures in a context-free way so you don't see that annotation. To make matters worse, many popular sites that allow photographic uploading deliberately strip out metadata as part of the upload process (Twitter and Facebook to name just a couple).
Given that we cannot rely on metadata being present, even if the photographer put it there and wants it to remain, it seems like a poor idea to base a decision on orphan status on these metadata. Unfortunately, few alternatives exist. There are registration services and even apps springing up, but nothing with the sort of wide acceptance that would be needed for efficient copyright holder search.
Who, sadly, deserves it. This is sad because I used to like Lanier. Back in the ancient days, when rocks were soft, I did a little work in virtual reality. I respect the pioneering work that Lanier did in that field. Sadly, he seems to have turned into a cranky old damned-kids-get-off-my-lawn type these days, trading on his past good work to sell books about the impending collapse of things he cares about, and peddle nonsense in major magazines.
Lanier's piece is an excerpt for his latest crank manifesto and it's just astonishingly full of wrong. People who are knowledgeable in one field are not automatically knowledgeable in others - as I so often prove. Here (and apparently in the book this column is excerpted from) Lanier shows that he really doesn't understand economics. In order to understand just how badly Lanier gets it wrong let me point you to this that's-not-actually-true.-at-all. dept column from Mike Masnick at Techdirt.
It's long, but a worthwhile read as Masnick goes point by point over several of Lanier's key economic mistakes and shows why these mistakes lead him to be totally wrong about things like digital music. This reminds me of David Lowery, who at least has serious music cred but who also takes a nearly entirely wrong approach to understanding the future evolution of digital music.
Where Masnick scores his best point - and where Lanier does so much worse than Lowery - is where Lanier appears to want to rewrite history (Masnick calls him out for "lying") and that's really a shame. People may not be able to be expert in every field, but good smart people ought to know better than this.
Quick reminder: fair use is not an absolute doctrine. Rather, it's a series of tests and criteria applied to a reuse that might be copyright infringing to determine whether infringement applies. Different courts have used different sets of criteria or weighed them differently, and interpretations have shifted over time. For example, recently it has been much harder to get fair use protection for parody and other humorous forms of commentary.
In this case, the question was whether Judge Batts's criteria that a reused work must somehow be "transformative" was an acceptable fair use test. Her ruling was generally acknowledged to be somewhat novel and raised concern particularly in the art world where reuse of images is common. It was particularly troubling as the case at hand concerned work by artist Richard Prince, who created new works of art based on photographs from a book. Prince's works were found infringing at trial level based on this new criteria, but his conviction is now overturned.
Using Aereo's odd business model as a jumping-off points, Salmon looks at the reality that what we currently think of as "broadcast" television channels are currently getting more revenue from retransmission fees paid by cable companies than from direct advertising (though he doesn't provide data, which would be nice - anyone got those numbers?). If that's really true then these companies could potentially just shut down broadcasting which would kill Aereo without having to win court battles. Doing so would also give them more leverage with the cable companies.
If broadcasters aren't going to use that spectrum, who will? Salmon believes that the spectrum will be auctioned off and bought mostly by cell and wireless data providers. This would, he says, "create more value." I'm not sure for whom this value would be created, though, and I should point out that as long as high-speed Net penetration in the US remains as crappy as it is (not universal, non-competitive, and stupidly expensive) then the idea of just handwaving away broadcast looks remarkably parochial. Sure, if you live in NYC like Salmon does (or near Boston as I do) then the loss of broadcast isn't something you'd notice. Drive an hour or two away from those major metro hubs, though and you bet there are a lot of people who would be well and truly pissed off if broadcast suddenly vanished.
I got a press release from Aereo today indicating that they are going to launch in Boston in mid-May. Significantly, this is outside the Second Circuit, where Aereo recently won its appeal. If I was a betting man I would bet that this will be an invitation for the broadcasters to file a new round of lawsuits in hopes of finding a friendlier ruling and creating a variance in opinions that could pressure the Supreme Court to revisit the 2nd's decision.
I haven't yet read Judge Stanton's opinion this time around, but the fact that it was only 24 pages indicates that he found what the TV lawyers call an "open and shut" case. Had there been complexities or nuances the Judge likely would have issued a lengthier ruling so his reasoning could be reviewed by the higher courts to which Viacom is sure to appeal. Sadly, Viacom has already stated their intention to re-appeal this. We can only hope that the 2nd Circuit will slap them down again and maybe finally they'll decide it's better to spend their money on developing better business models than on massive lawyer fees.
Vernon recounts her own experiences as a self-published author, as an author who has worked with publishers, and as a comic artist. Although she resists drawing bigger conclusions I think her primary thought - there is on one true right way - jibes with what we've explored in this blog. We find ourselves still in the infant stages of both these kinds of publication and it's a mistake to draw too many definitives out of the air just yet.
Vernon's other point I noted is that fans are having a disproportionate effect here. We've noted how fans of some artists - most famously Amanda Palmer - have made the artist's efforts successful well beyond expectations, but what Vernon is talking about is how fans of a genre or artform can shape or stifle debate and particularly criticism. That's a serious problem, not just for the people being criticized or shut down but for our ability to judge, compare, and improve these infant forms.
Take out the word 'software' and I'd be in complete agreement. Bad software patents have gotten a lot of attention lately but rules for reforming patent examination and issuance need to be universal. You can't just single out bad software patenting practices and ignore errors if they are happening in hardware, biotech, etc. The EFF do focus on a problem that is endemic to software patents - overbroad claiming. In most other fields of patent arts it's necessary for the invention to be narrowly described and for the patent only to protect the specific claims. For example, if I patent a medicine to cure headaches I am given protection only on the specific medicine I disclose in the patent, not on the entire field of headache cures.
The post also renews EFF's earlier calls for source-code submission, with which I sympathize but I think will make more trouble than it solves. For example, what language(s) will be accepted? And how will you prove that two source code submissions are or are not equivalent? I haven't looked lately but I think proof of program equivalence is an NP-hard problem to solve. Really, though, you don't care about the code. You care about the algorithm the code implements, and we have some pretty well-understood ways to describe algorithms without reducing them to specific code forms. Yes, it may take a certain level of skill to understand non-textual algorithmic representations but we ought to expect the examiners of software patent applications to be able to read those, just as we expect other examiners to be able to read mathematical equations, or chemical reaction formulae.
Patent "Monetization" Entities... Which is to Say, Trolls
A study report out of UC Hastings College of the Law reports that "patent monetization entities" - called "trolls" in the headline - filed 56% of patent lawsuits last year, more than double the percentage of five years ago. Hear that, Apple? You get cracking now! On a more serious note, the study also looked at public notification systems and determined that they are woefully inadequate. People and companies are not able to find out when patents are being asserted in lawsuits, which deprives them of the chance to avoid infringement.
Unfortunately, bad as they are, they appear to be at least surface-level legitimate, though Mullin has some fascinating background about just exactly who these guys are that have been hired to carry out the collection part of the plan. This brings me back to the point I keep harping on, which is that we created this mess ourselves and we're not going to fix it until we take serious steps to reform the patent-issuing process itself. Radical things, like hiring more (and more qualified examiners), permitting summary rejections of trash that is clearly intended just to clog up the system and drag everything out, establishing compulsory licensing regimes, and preventing Congress from filching the fees that the USPTO extracts and that ought to be used to fund most of these improvements. Crazy stuff, I know.