This Week In Techdirt History: June 26th – July 1st

from the echoes dept

Five Years Ago

Hactivism was a big topic this week in 2011, especially after infamous group LulzSec announced that it would be disbanding. Australian telco giant Telstra was reconsidering its censorship plan due to hactivist fears, while the RIAA was unsurprisingly using hactivism as another reason to promote the PROTECT IP bill. Governments were struggling to address the issue, though some people were smart enough to point out that the best approach would be to examine their own policies. And, hot of the heels of the major Sony hack, the company was claiming it was targeted due to the fact that it enforces its intellectual property. As for the other high-profile Sony hacker, George Hotz, well — he was busy getting hired by Facebook.

Last week we talked about, the exciting new music service that we knew wasn’t long for this world, and indeed this week it was blocked to all non-US users in the first step towards its demise. This was also the week that Prince made his bizarre statements about how digital music supposedly has a different effect on the brain. And, in ruling that was predictable but highly important, the Supreme Court struck down California’s anti-violent-videogame law for violating the First Amendment.

Ten Years Ago

Before Sony was the victim of hackers, it was the hacker — or at least the hacker’s friend — thanks to its horrible rootkit, and it was this week in 2006 that the authors of a virus leveraging that rootkit were arrested. At the same time, Microsoft was rolling out “Windows Genuine Advantage” and some were wondering if it would become the next such fiasco. And before the question of violent video games made it to the Supreme Court, the New York DA’s office was pulling out all the stops in a desperate effort to find something to bring down Grand Theft Auto.

The net neutrality fight was raging too, but with a severe dearth of actual honest discussion. Cory Doctorow was suggesting a P2P-driven shaming system for bad broadband providers, while Senators were strutting their hypocrisy by opposing net neutrality regulation and supporting broadcast flag regulation in the same bill.

Fifteen Years Ago

This week in 2001, before the days of WGA, Microsoft was trying out more mundane copy protection schemes and pissing off serious users of Microsoft Office. Rumors were beginning to spread about a Google IPO, though it wouldn’t materialize for another three years. Amazon unveiled free shipping, but coupled with some quiet price hikes that mitigated the impact. And advertisers were scrambling to figure out how to make money off the instant messaging craze.

But no doubt the biggest tech news this week in 2001 was the fact that a federal appeals court reversed the antitrust decision that said Microsoft must be broken up. Of course, absolutely everyone had something to say about this fact, and we’ve still got a few more years left to fact-check Steward Alsop’s prediction that Microsoft will fail in 2020 or 2021.

Forty-Two Years Ago

Today, barcodes are ubiquitous. They were conceived in the late 1940s, patented in the early 50s, and shopped around for some time after that before the critical development of the Universal Product Code that dominates the retail world. It was on June 26th, 1974 that the first UPC barcode was scanned at a retail checkout, ringing up the price of a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum in Troy, Ohio.

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Comments on “This Week In Techdirt History: June 26th – July 1st”

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Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

20-Year-Lag In Adoption Of New Ideas

So barcodes were patented in the 1950s, and became widespread in the 1970s, just around the time the original patent would have expired?

Funny how a similar thing happened with the transistor–patented in 1948, while transistorized consumer electronics didn’t become popular around the 1960s or so. Then germanium gave way to silicon in the 1970s, again about 20 years after the original patent expiry.

In non-electronic technology, the four-stroke Otto cycle was patented in 1868, and the first “horseless carriages” started to proliferate around 20 years later.

What is the pattern? If anything, it illustrates how patents impede innovation, rather than encourage it.

Aaron Walkhouse (profile) says:

Not exactly.

It illustrates that the limited time of patents give inventors
a couple of decades to profit from their work, a reasonable
, then gives the public permission to benefit
from that same work whether or not the inventor got rich
before then.

If the period was shorter there’s less incentive to innovate
and if longer, that innovation would be denied to others
for longer.

Don’t forget the patents are a publishing of inventions,
sort of a heads-up to the public that they can try the new
technology for themselves after expiry. ‌ If not for that
mandated publicity those inventions would be kept secret
and most inventions would be forgotten, lost forever.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not exactly.

Don’t forget the patents are a publishing of inventions, sort of a heads-up to the public that they can try the new technology for themselves after expiry. ‌ If not for that mandated publicity those inventions would be kept secret and most inventions would be forgotten, lost forever.

Being able to use and build on an idea immediately leads to more innovation, that having and idea and having to wait several decades before you can put it into practice publicly. I would find the claim that patents result in more lost invention more believable than the idea that no patents result in more lost inventions.
When allowed to people will solve their own problems, and where that is helped along by an open and sharing environment, they will put their solution back in the melting pot.

Aaron Walkhouse (profile) says:

Re: Re:

And yet if that plan was put into effect no patents would
be filed, as that would give away the inventors’ only incentive.
Thus all technologies would become trade secrets and everyone
who copied anyone else [intentionally or not] would be dragged
into court to spend fortunes just to make the problem go away.

Trade secrets, in case you didn’t know, don’t expire,
delaying follow-on innovation until their owners say so;
which means a lot longer than their lifetimes. ‌

Recipes for Coca-Cola and KFC are like that. ‌ If you happen
to copy them, even by accident, say goodbye to your life
savings and any hope of a career as an inventor.

An idyllic society of sharing is a nice theory but invention
is a matter of business. ‌ It has to be temporarily protected
in order to create a profit and an incentive to innovate in
the first place.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Recipes for Coca-Cola and KFC are like that. ‌ If you happen
to copy them, even by accident, say goodbye to your life
savings and any hope of a career as an inventor.

That’s not true. Trade secret protection (now made uniform across most of America by the UTSA) only applies to “improper means” of learning a secret (corporate espionage, theft, misrepresentation, etc). If you uncover a trade secret by reverse engineering or independent invention, those are considered “proper means” and are perfectly legal. Indeed, you can even gain trade secret protection yourself for something you’ve developed by “proper means”, and benefit from the same protections as the original inventor.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

One of the main uses of patents is trolling, which is a legally sanctioned protection racket, and is driven that an idea is more valuable than the implementation. It is one of the ways that patents inhibit inventive effort. The mass of patents, written in incomprehensible legalese, making it almost impossible t decide if an invention will infringe on someone else’s patent, and the associated ability for corporations to threaten small business is another.
If anything, these problems show how patents inhibit inventiveness, rather than encourage it.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

You do realize there are plenty of companies making cola, right? And thousands of restaurants big and small making fried chicken? Some worse, some better, some preferred by some and not by others, much indistinguishable in blind taste tests?

If this is your example for how trade secrets are worse for innovation than patents, I think you’ve chosen a bad one. There’s been no shortage of innovation in the cola beverage and fried chicken fields. Also neither of those things are eligible for patent protection in the first place.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Your views on inventiveness are typical of control freaks, who often end up running a business, but whose only creativity is in cooking the books so that they get most of the money.
For inventiveness in general, sharing of information and ideas is what drives new developments, like in academia when it is working properly, free and open software and hardware movements, and increasing many small and agile business who use social media including YouTube to help each other solve problems, even when they are in the same market.

Aaron Walkhouse (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2

Sorry, but you’re wrong about my intent. ‌ I never said that
everything must be patented or that there is no place
for sharing and open science. ‌ I simply say that there is a
place for patent protection and that it’s current limit of
20 years is a fair balance between the rights of inventors
and those of the public. ‌

Usually, especially when money is involved, patents fit the
public need by making it possible to start a business, or
entire industry, and making it only a 20-year headstart gives
others the opportunity to take such progress as far as it can go.

You can credit patents with making car manufacturers big
enough to innovate as rapidly as they have been and the
shortness of the same patents to make cars affordable today,
even though they are technically far superior than the Model T.

You, if you’ll remember correctly, started from the position
that 20 years is unfair by ignoring one side of that balance. ‌
If anyone ignores either side of that balance they are being
unfair to somebody’s rights. ‌ If a government does the same,
innovation is held back one way or the other.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

History tends to point in the direction of patents causing stagnation in an industry, with wide adoption of an invention along with bursts of innovation occurring after a set of patents expire. Just one example, the explosion in 3D printing since some key patents have expired.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

I think what Aaron Walkhouse is saying is that the patent system we now have grew out of an effort to stop the hoarding of knowledge. Before patents, advances and inventions were often kept completely secret — in some cases, entire secret societies grew out of that tendency. This was, in the long run, terrible for society at large.

Patents have their own set of significant problems, but the idea is that they reduce the larger problem of eternal secrecy. Between the two, I’d much rather have patents than secrets.

That said, I do think that patent law in the US in the past couple of decades has degraded to the point where increasingly patent law does more damage than good. But I argue that’s a reason to fight for better patent law, it’s not a reason to reject the notion of patents entirely.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: Re: Re:5 the patent system we now have grew out of an effort to stop the hoarding of knowledge

No it didn’t. It grew out of the system of “letters patent”—exclusive monopolies granted by the Government on basic things like manufacturing salt or gold leaf, as a mechanism for raising extra revenue without raising taxes. Rather than abolish the system altogether, it mutated into a system for granting monopolies on “inventions”.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Before patents, advances and inventions were often kept completely secret — in some cases, entire secret societies grew out of that tendency. This was, in the long run, terrible for society at large.

That’s the story we are told. But it is, at best, a half-truth.

For one thing, patents were around for some 400 years as simply a form of government-granted monopoly, before even being talked about as a form of “intellectual property”. And throughout all that time and beyond, there’s basically no example of a period in which patents served the idyllic purpose they are supposed to according to the “secrecy” narrative. From the very start, they were a means of wheeling and dealing with governments granting patents to “inventors” solely on the basis of making everyone involved a bunch of monopoly money, not any sort of reasonable rationale.

There wasn’t any requirement to publish the details of a patent for the first several hundred years of patents. The notion of having to examine a patent application for things like prior art and obviousness before granting it is even newer than that.

Nevertheless, let’s look at the notion of patents as a way to prevent secrecy seriously for a moment, and assume it’s the true intent: where’s the evidence that this was a problem, or that patents fix it? As we see throughout the world today and throughout history, most things are invented contemporaneously and independently by multiple people in different places – because most “inventions” are in fact natural innovations based on what has come before. So, where are the great inventions that were lost because they were secret? Where are the great patents that were published to a cry of “thank god they revealed that and we can all use it in couple decades”, as opposed to the cry of “fuck so now we have to wait a couple decades before we can use that?”

I don’t know of any. And even if you can make the case that this was true historically, to me that has little bearing on the situation now. Now, the reality is that keeping a patentable invention secret is basically impossible anyway – there are enough smart people with enough resources that any invention is reverse engineered and fully understood, or else simply reproduced, within moments of hitting the ground. There are endless real examples of patents restricting innovation, and only vague hypothetical examples of how they promote it.

I’m not saying the notion of patents necessarily has to be entirely rejected, but it certainly has to be re-evaluated from the ground up. And in order to do that, we must look at the reality, not the myth of secretive guilds and the glorious publishing of patents. The reality is that they have always been a means of building monopolies in order to make business-shrewd individuals rich first, and a means of promoting innovation second if at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Before patents, advances and inventions were often kept completely secret — in some cases, entire secret societies grew out of that tendency.

Before modern science, a lot of skill and experience was needed to carry out the process, along with the selection of identified inputs. For example, without chemistry, using an ores and fuels from specific sources and carrying a a detailed preparation sequence would be the way of producing a steel for a particular purpose. This tended to mean that ritual and arcane knowledge were needed for consistent quality, and this aspect of the guilds was what led to the masons and other secret societies.
When the guilds were regulating a trade, the journeymen carried knowledge between the various workshops in which they worked. Sometimes, and for some products, such as steel, the quality of the steel was as much a function of the raw input materials as it was of the production process. The ‘secret’ of making it could be lost due to ore exhaustion, and a substitute ore not producing the same result. Take your iron ore from this mine, and your limestone from that quarry is not a useful recipe for expanding production, as the secret lies in the composition of the inputs, and chemistry was needed to unravel those secrets.

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