Celebrating 20 Years Of Patent-Free Email Attachments

from the true-spirit-of-innovation dept

Tech innovation happens in layers. The internet was built to make computers more useful, the web was built to make the internet more useful, social media (for example) was built to make the web more useful, other online services are built to make social media more useful, and so on. This kind of incremental improvement is always faster and more efficient when the last round of innovations is open and accessible to a new generation of developers—contrary to the claims of patent-system supporters who insist that protection is necessary to promote progress.

Such claims look the most ridiculous when you consider the fundamental technologies of the digital world. The high user counts of the latest web startups are nothing compared to the underlying communication protocols that make them and every other online service possible. A big part of the reason these technologies have become so widespread, and created a reliable foundation on which others can build, is that they were free to use. Last year, after the 20th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the world wide web, we wondered what the online world would look like today if he had locked the technology up behind a patent. A similar question is raised this month as we mark another 20th anniversary: that of the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension protocol, better known as MIME, the technology that powers every single email attachment.

TechWeekEurope spoke to Nathaniel Borenstein, MIME's creator, about why he built the technology and what he thinks of its massive adoption. Like Berners-Lee, and indeed most "old-guard" internet engineers, Borenstein's attitude is one of openness and genuine, useful problem solving:

Mostly, [MIME] was a natural continuation of things I was pursuing. I wanted to live in a world where certain functionality existed.

When people asked me, "why do you work so hard on this?" I used to say that someday I'm going to have grandchildren, and I wanted to get their pictures by e-mail. A lot of people laughed, because it was inconceivable back then. No one even thought of digital cameras, so people pictured taking a print and scanning it in, and then transmitting it over their 1200 baud modem, and even that was expensive equipment.

Borenstein notes that the real challenge of developing MIME wasn't the engineering aspect, but the difficulty of getting everyone to agree to a single standard. By coming up with a clever solution and making it free and open-source, he succeeded, and now the entire world of email relies on MIME. Some might see his situation and think he got a raw deal, and that if he had patented MIME he could be pulling fat checks—but he knows it doesn't work that way:

The most common question I get about MIME is, "have you ever imagined what it would be like if you got a penny every time MIME was used?" And the answer is oh yeah, I imagined that (laughs). I did some checking up, and there's an estimate that MIME is used a trillion times every day. So if I got a penny every time, my annual income would be roughly equal to the GDP of Germany. But of course, that's just a silly fantasy. If there was any money involved, it would never have succeeded. Somebody would have been motivated to develop a similar thing for free.

This is the attitude of a true innovator. Borenstein developed MIME because he saw a problem that he wanted to solve—and he knew his solution wouldn't be of much use to anyone if he demanded an ongoing monopoly on it. Contrast that with trolls who obtain patents on abstract ideas and demand a cut from companies that are actually implementing them, and you see why the very nature of technology patents is opposed to their stated goal of promoting innovation. Today's true innovators recognize this, but the broken system forces them to pursue patents anyway, lest someone else try to patent their idea out from under them and use it to hold them back.

As we mark the anniversaries of fundamental online technologies like MIME, which have benefited the world and driven innovation by remaining free and open, maybe it's time to look at today's patent system, and update it to reflect the way technological progress really happens.



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Jeon, Mar 14th, 2012 @ 6:32am

    What a freetard

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 14th, 2012 @ 6:50am

    Patent Abolition FTW

    The patent bar has had over 200 years to make the patent system into something with benefits exceeding its costs. They have not done it. They do not want to do it. Time is up. Abolish the patent system.

    Alas, the present politicians are so addicted to laws and yet more laws that they will not do it. They could at least take away the commercial monopoly aspect. Abolish patent infringement. Yes, that means compulsory licensing for free. That would take away the profit of patent trolls, so the trolls would be harmless. That would greatly reduce the costs of the patent system. Economic benefits would be unchanged since the benefits are illusory anyway. When zero changes to zero it is still zero.

     

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    Paul, Mar 14th, 2012 @ 6:58am

    broken system

    The real broken system is the monetary system. Why else would you invent something if not for money? To have or to have done? Lets have and then have more...

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Hats, Mar 14th, 2012 @ 7:15am

      Re: broken system

      The real broken system is the HATS system. Why else would you play a game if not to obtain hats? Lets have hats, and then have more hats.

      For too long, Valve and their Hat Trolls have taunted the players, with an ever-increasing variety of hats, yet no increase in access to hats by the general player base through an increased drop rate.

      Valve has had over 200 years to make the Hat Drop system into something with benefits (i.e. Hats) exceeding its costs. They have not done it. They do not want to do it. Time is up. Abolish the Hat Monopoly.

      Free, unrestricted transfer, duplication, and even sharing of hats is the only solution.

      FREE HATS.

      HATS.

      Sincerely,


      HATS.

       

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Mar 14th, 2012 @ 7:18am

      Re: broken system

      "Why else would you invent something if not for money?"

      I guess you failed to read the article. But I can understand, why would you read an article if there is no money involved?

       

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      John Fenderson (profile), Mar 14th, 2012 @ 4:34pm

      Re: broken system

      Why else would you invent something if not for money?


      I'm really glad that lots of people don't agree with this idea. I certainly don't. I've invented quite a few new things in my time, some of which made me money, a couple of things that made me a lot of money.

      However, I was not motivated by the prospect of money in a single one of those things. I was motivated because I wanted something that didn't exist, so I had to make it myself.

       

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 14th, 2012 @ 7:29am

    Ahh Marcus, you really are a fool.

    That a certain narrow technology, created BEFORE the internet had any commercial intentions was or was not patent isn't a big issue. Just like many other technologies that drive the internet, they were written and created by people who were more interested in the thrill of creation (and of adoption of the ideas as a standard) than of any grand commercial intent.

    That someone operated under that standard doesn't suddenly mean that the patent system doesn't work.

    Your logical jump is "Evil Knieval jumping the Snake River Canyon" silly - and fails just as soundly.

     

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      E. Zachary Knight (profile), Mar 14th, 2012 @ 7:42am

      Re:

      I think you missed the point.

      Borenstein created the email attachment protocol, not for monetary gain, but to better the world. Inventors throughout history have followed that same philosophy. The availability of patents does not change those people's minds.

      The world is a better place today because he did not seek a patent. Had he sought a patent, the world would be a very different and probably worse world than it is.

      Pretty much all software patents have no real monetary potential. The only real monetary potential for software patents is in licensing fees and patent lawsuits. That is not how real innovation is born.

       

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      HATS, Mar 14th, 2012 @ 7:43am

      Re:

      Hang on, let me put on my thinking hat.

      If many of the technologies that drive the internet were written and created 'for the thrill', then why do we need to offer patents as incentives for creation?

      To quote Adam Moore ('Intellectual Property: Theory, Privilege, and Pragmatism', Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence Vol.XVI, No.2 (July 2003)):
      In the most basic terms the theory that provides the foundation for Anglo-American systems of intellectual property is a particular sort of cost benefit analysis. The benefit sought is social progress. The costs are the rights that limit public access to intellectual works necessary for incentives. In essence there is a trade-off of access to intellectual works in order to stimulate production and maximize social progress.
      If we can get the social progress for the price of a thrill, why are we unnecessarily limiting public access to intellectual works with a patent system?

       

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        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Mar 14th, 2012 @ 10:51am

        Re: Re:

        "If many of the technologies that drive the internet were written and created 'for the thrill', then why do we need to offer patents as incentives for creation?"

        Ahh, it's a little hard to explain. You have to go back and look at the history of the internet, of people paid to do nothing (working at universities), and students with a lot of spare time and access to resources.

        What is done "for the fun of it" sometimes turns out to be exactly what everyone wants. But it isn't really a perfect development system. Just look at SMTP style email: A defective product, with no security, totally spoofable, with no checks, no controls, and no simple way to assure that the mail comes from someone or goes to the right person.

        The attachment system, in the same manner, has many issues - such as allowing "double extension" files (sexypic.jpg.exe as an example), and also allowing for content type spoofing. It's not an optimum solution, as much as something that worked just enough for people to adopt it.

        Can you imagine the computer revolution if we had all waited for Linux to be usable by anyone else other than total geeks? Oh, wait, it still hasn't passed that stage!

         

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        •  
          identicon
          Anonymous Coward, Mar 14th, 2012 @ 11:23am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Just look at postal mail: A defective product, with no security, totally spoofable, with no checks, no controls, and no simple way to assure that the mail comes from someone or goes to the right person.

           

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          •  
            identicon
            Anonymous Coward, Mar 14th, 2012 @ 1:16pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            You would think that a purely digital product would be better than a paper system that is hundreds of years old. Apparently the "great new world" sucks as bad as the old one.

             

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          John Fenderson (profile), Mar 14th, 2012 @ 4:45pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          You have to go back and look at the history of the internet, of people paid to do nothing (working at universities), and students with a lot of spare time and access to resources.

          Ahh, I get it, you hate universities to a hysterical degree.

          But it isn't really a perfect development system. Just look at SMTP style email: A defective product


          Interestingly, there were for-profit commercial email systems around in those days, too. None of them were any better than SMTP -- but were more expensive and had fewer people using them (so were less useful).

          There is zero correlation between quality and whether a thing was made for profit or not.

          such as allowing "double extension" files (sexypic.jpg.exe as an example),


          This is not an example of a fault in the attachment system (MIME) at all, by the way, unless you think that making attachment OS-specific is a good idea.

           

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          TtfnJohn (profile), Mar 14th, 2012 @ 7:07pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          "Ahh, it's a little hard to explain. You have to go back and look at the history of the internet, of people paid to do nothing (working at universities), and students with a lot of spare time and access to resources."

          If you really go back you'll find that most of the specifications for the internet and the money to pay to implement and test the initial outlay came from the US Defense Department and other "investment" including the requirement that the Internet be able to route around damage came from the same location. In anticipation of a nuclear exchange, of course, but that was part of the requirement.

          So as well as people working at universities (doing nothing, eh?), there were people at the Pentagon working on it, students and others working on it.

          The computer science DNA of the time was to share darned near everything. AFAIK no one actually got the code that ran IBM's heavy iron other than IBM but the concepts and peripheral code was shared widely. The current notion of copyrighted code that you don't share had to wait for the arrival of microcomputers such as the Altair for which a start-up named Microsoft supplied a version of the BASIC programming language which, of course, they copied from someone else and the days of what we now call "closed source" began in earnest.

          Development of the Internet continued using what we now call "open source" in parallel with the computer revolution and became publicly usable with developments such as the Web and half decent search engines.

          No email isn't perfect. But I don't know what is. But if you code I'm sure the people who work on email will be more than happy to take your help working towards the optimum solution. And yes, it just works. But you can criticize or jump and help.

          "Can you imagine the computer revolution if we had all waited for Linux to be usable by anyone else other than total geeks? Oh, wait, it still hasn't passed that stage!"

          Linux passed that stage years ago. You could try installing a modern distro, say Ubuntu, Red Hat, SUSE, Mint or Mandriva and you'd probably be shocked. Geekdom is no longer required. But that would probably be too much work.

           

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          Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), Mar 15th, 2012 @ 4:06pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Nice troll. Managing to imply that things paid and locked up in patents for are sooo much better and fit-for-purpose and secure than those nasty dirty horrible (*gasp*) free things... Yep managed to completely snow me with that one. Oh, no.. wait... um... I forgot about every Microsoft product ever.

           

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Mar 14th, 2012 @ 7:47am

      Re:

      It doesn't seem to be working for the betterment of humankind. You know what seems to work for the betterment of humankind?

      Doing things for the betterment of humankind. The horror!

       

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      John Fenderson (profile), Mar 14th, 2012 @ 4:36pm

      Re:

      That a certain narrow technology, created BEFORE the internet had any commercial intentions


      The internet still has no commercial intentions. It's just that all these commercial entities keep coming in and wrecking the place.

       

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      Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 4:37am

      Re: That a certain narrow technology, created BEFORE the internet had any commercial intentions ...

      Bzzzzt! Wrong!

      Remember, the development of MIME happened after the Internet had already been opened up for commercial use. Steve Jobs, CEO of the very commercial compnay NeXT, called up Borenstein and tried to get him to require Unicode in MIME, because NeXT had already embraced Unicode in its very commercial network protocols. Borenstein refused, because he wanted to maintain interoperability with the other very commercial OSes that were connecting to the Internet. Like the ones on the PCs that people were buying in the shops and taking to their offices or to their homes.

      So don’t try to bullshit that there was ever a “garden of Eden” time on the Internet before the coming of commercialism. Commercial companies were a driving force on the Internet right from the early days.

       

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 14th, 2012 @ 7:36am

    'maybe it's time to look at today's patent system, and update it to reflect the way technological progress really happens'

    or maybe it's time that, if possible, he and Berners-Lee changed things so that their inventions weren't used as a cash cow for an elite few, a piss take of everyone else and they stated who could do what with them and how. that would be interesting, wouldn't it? several governments and a lot of companies would wonder what the hell had hit them. maybe do them some good, selfish arse holes!

     

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    Pwdrskir (profile), Mar 14th, 2012 @ 10:23am

    But...but...Congress fixed the Patent system

    The fully bought off incompetents that recently "fixed" the patent system have NO clue on how tech works or will work. Their track record of backing “innovation protection” legislation that would destroy genuine innovation in on the record for future generations to use as a “NOT How To do”.

    The likes of bottom-feeding Chris Dodd will be held in the same regard as Ralph H Cameron (wanted to mine and destroy the Grand Canyon) & Larry Criag (hypocritical JackAss).

     

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    Al Bert (profile), Mar 14th, 2012 @ 12:38pm

    Innovation produced by patent lawyers benefits no one.

    It seems to me that the actual sources of creation (the artists and engineers) are often on the right side of the IP fence. If that observation is correct, the whole "IP law protects innovation" argument needs to be set aflame, pushed out to sea and forgotten forever.

    Oh wait, that was already obvious.

     

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    Ian Kerr (profile), Mar 14th, 2012 @ 2:40pm

    Berners Lee

    Communications standards have to be open. Everyone understands that. It applies to everything: DSL, IP, CCS#7, Morse code....

    Generally, the people who create them are employed by organisations whose income does not depend on the standard itself, but by the sale of some other product or service that the existence of the standard enables.

    In the case of Nathaniel Borenstein, I believe he was employed by Bell Labs.

    In the case of Tim Berners-Lee, he was employed by CERN, so his income did not depend on WWW, and CERN's income depends on scientific success which is assisted by easier sharing of info between scientists.

    I can see there are lots of problems with the patent system, but I am not sure that this example undermines the value of patents in other cases, where the inventor's income is actually dependent on the sale of the invention.

     

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