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.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Mar 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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