Mason Wheeler’s Techdirt Profile


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  • Mar 26th, 2015 @ 12:58pm

    (untitled comment)


    That's probably the most disappointing part of this whole thing. Of all of the different concepts covered under the umbrella term of "intellectual property," trade secrets are the one with the least legitimacy, since you can't have less than zero.

    Trade secrets are actively harmful to civilization. They're the problem that patents were created to fix, and legislators who don't understand this are the stuff of cautionary tales and aphorisms; the one about those who don't understand history being doomed to repeat it comes to mind!

  • Mar 26th, 2015 @ 12:02pm

    (untitled comment)

    If anything's due for a complete revamp, if not a complete repeal, it's the DMCA. It wasn't even good legislation back when it was passed.

    It works on so many levels...

  • Mar 26th, 2015 @ 10:43am

    (untitled comment)

    Fox News host Anna Kooiman suggested the metric system was to blame, what with kilometers being different than miles and Celsius and Fahrenheit not seeing eye-to-eye, potentially leading to some sort of in-flight calculation error.

    Now, I'm no fan of Fox News, but it's worth pointing out that that theory sounds a whole lot less ridiculous when you realize it's actually happened at least once.

  • Mar 26th, 2015 @ 7:12am

    Re: Re: Re: Chop Suey

    Even Jesus didn't get off easy, and the Romans were just getting started.

    Crucifixion was hardly a Roman innovation; by the time of Jesus Christ it had been used as a form of execution for centuries by various different countries.

  • Mar 25th, 2015 @ 1:06pm

    (untitled comment)

    It has enough power to keep your laptop online while you're out and about

    Just to be clear, is this thing actually capable of keeping my laptop running? (On a plane, for example?) It appears from the linked page that all it can provide power though is USB ports, but my laptop draws its power from standard wall sockets.

  • Mar 25th, 2015 @ 7:14am

    (untitled comment)

    How a device that delivers a 0.2% hit rate has become something the cops lean on so heavily they simply can't go on without it is a question that deserves a "transparent" answer, rather than the hitch-in-the-throat talking points delivered here.

    That's actually pretty simple statistics. 0.2% hit rate sounds like something really small, until you realize it means "1 in 500." How long does it take you to see 500 different cars? Cops in a big city could encounter that many in a single day.

  • Mar 25th, 2015 @ 7:06am

    (untitled comment)

    many of them clearly aiming to undermine some of Reda's ideas completely -- for example, those seeking to rein in DRM.

    I'd like to undermine those ideas too. "Rein in" is something you do to a horse you want to keep. This is a horse that needs to be taken out back of the barn and shot.

    DRM serves no legitimate purpose, and the only correct legal regime to deal with it is to criminalize it as the hacking tool it is.

  • Mar 25th, 2015 @ 6:56am

    (untitled comment)

    So in order to get approval from a company (arguably) even more evil than themselves, Apple is willing to spy on its customers on their behalf?

    I wish I could say I was surprised. I also wish I could say that any part of that is illegal.

  • Mar 24th, 2015 @ 9:54am

    (untitled comment)

    with an honest assessment of the current low likelihood of use by major criminal enterprise

    Yeah, something like Silk Road is so incredibly unlikely that it already happened. Twice.

  • Mar 24th, 2015 @ 7:15am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Yes, that's one theory. But the problem with no one knowing why it died out is that no one knows why it died out. And considering that the reason steelmaking was lost in every other case was due to not publishing the techniques involved...

    Well, you know what they say about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence.

  • Mar 24th, 2015 @ 6:47am

    (untitled comment)

    How is this not illegal? The act of destruction of property is a crime in every civilized jurisdiction.

  • Mar 24th, 2015 @ 3:48am

    Re: Anything

    The new rules only do one thing. Allow the FCC to pick and choose winners & losers.

    How exactly do they do that? Seems to me that all they do is allow the FCC to forbid the ISPs from picking and choosing winners & losers, which is actually something completely different. It puts the power of picking and choosing winners and losers back in the hands of the people who use those services, which is who ought to have had that power all along.

  • Mar 23rd, 2015 @ 1:07pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Except that it is a 1000 year old problem that, in today's world, would not be a problem (we can do an analysis on steel to determine what it is comprised of).

    The problem isn't "what is it comprised of?" The problem is "how do you make it?", and the answer is non-obvious.

    Everyone knows (today, at least) that steel is made of an alloy of iron and carbon. Even if you knew how much of each to mix, there's the tricky question of how to get them to alloy properly when the ignition temperature of most common forms of free carbon is well below the melting point of iron! And the tolerances are pretty narrow, too. Not enough carbon, and you get iron that's slightly harder than usual. Too much, and you end up with pig iron, which is hard but so brittle as to be almost useless. There's a very narrow "sweet spot" in between that produces steel.

    What the Bessmer Converter did was take pig iron (which had too much carbon in it), melt it down, and blow air over it in a controlled manner to slowly burn off the excess carbon until they got it down to the right percentage, and then let it solidify again. That's not a trick that analysis of what the steel is composed of is going to reveal; that's a genuine new invention that someone has to think of and publish before it becomes generally available.

  • Mar 23rd, 2015 @ 12:10pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    And yet somehow the cycle still continued, even well into and even beyond the medieval period. Case in point, there was a high-grade steel from India known as wootz, whose quality was legendary in its time, and of higher quality than a Bessemer Converter could produce. It was consistently made in small quantities from around 200 AD to around 1700 AD, so the technique got passed down for quite a few generations, but then in the 18th century wootz production abruptly disappeared from history, and even today no one's sure exactly how it was made anymore.

    That's the problem that patents solve.

  • Mar 23rd, 2015 @ 11:15am

    Re: Re: Yes it does

    Yeah, the protection aspect of patents is badly broken. That's been known for decades. Consider the case of Philo Farnsworth.

    Have you ever heard of him? Most people haven't, which is a bit surprising considering his enormous impact on modern culture: He's the guy who invented television! He really ought to be a household name, alongside Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell, but a funny thing happened on the way to the history books: RCA started producing his invention.

    It's not that Farnsworth's television wasn't worthy of patent protection. It was a truly novel and revolutionary invention, a genuine American success story. There were lots of people working on "the television problem" at about the same time, but most of them were trying (unsuccessfully) to build something based on the principle of some sort of rotating device. That was the obvious way to do it, right? Afterall, that's how movie projectors work!

    Farnsworth had the brilliant idea of abandoning the "projector" paradigm entirely and setting up a grid of pixels that would be selectively activated by a completely stationary electron gun, and he was essentially the only one who went that route. And it worked! He did everything right, took out a patent, and started producing and selling televisions.

    And then the RCA company started producing them too. There's really no room for doubt or interpretation here; Farnsworth had a valid patent, and RCA was ripping him off. He tried to take them to court, but he was one guy and they were a giant company with tons of lawyers, and... long story short, Philo Farnsworth died in poverty.

    The basic idea of the patent system is a good one, but it's in serious need of reform and has been for at least that long.

  • Mar 23rd, 2015 @ 11:02am


    Be careful recommending something like this. As strange as it may seem to us today, since the patent system has been around for centuries before any of us were born, it was put in place to help do away with something even worse: trade secrets, and the great loss to society that occurs when such secrets die with the tradesman.

    One of the most extreme examples--and yet one of the most useful--is steel. How old do you think it is? Modern steelmaking techniques were first developed as part of the Industrial Revolution, but of course that wasn't the beginning of it; the iconic imagery of the knight in steel armor with a steel sword is centuries older than that. But steel was old even in Medieval times; the oldest known samples date back to the 14th century BC!

    It wasn't until the 19th century that it began to be created in great quantities, which proved the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution that laid the foundation for modern life. But why?

    The actual answer is basic greed. Steel is difficult to get right, and throughout the ages, whenever some smith would stumble on the formula, they would keep it as a closely-guarded secret, generally to get lots of money from the local royalty supplying weapons and armor to the army. Which is a nice job if you can get it, but then a funny thing happens a few decades later: the smith ends up dying one way or another, and unless he's passed on the secret to an apprentice or another smith... no more steel.

    This happened over and over and over for more than 3000 years, to the point where you have to wonder if the real question isn't "why did it not happen that way again in the 19th century?" And the answer is patents.

    The British government, fed up with the way society kept losing valuable knowledge to trade secrets, set up a patent system that provided an incentive to publish the details of new inventions rather than keep them secret... and it worked. When steelmaking patents expired and the techniques entered the public domain, anyone with the requisite technical expertise and a bit of capital could set up a Bessemer Converter. The price of steel plummeted almost tenfold, making it readily available as a structural material, people started building machines out of it, and the rest is history. Turns out valueless steel is far more valuable than valuable steel, from a societal perspective at least. (Interesting note: The patent on the Bessemer Converter expired in 1870. In 1873, Karl Benz produced his first gasoline engine, and then went on to invent the automobile.)

    Without the patent system, the Industrial Revolution might never have happened, and we would still be stuck at an early-19th-century standard of living. If that sounds unrealistic, keep in mind that trade secrets on steel had already held the progress of civilization back by over 3000 years, so what's another couple centuries?

    Still want to get rid of patents?

  • Mar 20th, 2015 @ 6:52am


    Get Christopher Lloyd to build him a time machine, obviously.

  • Mar 20th, 2015 @ 6:46am

    (untitled comment)

    Dear Washington Post:

    That's a feature, not a bug.


    Rational Citizens Against ISDS

  • Mar 20th, 2015 @ 6:34am

    (untitled comment)

    It wouldn't be surprising to see Mars One fail to get off the ground

    I see what you did there...

  • Mar 20th, 2015 @ 5:12am

    You gotta be kidding me

    Gamer here. Grew up (partially) in the 80s. Still have fond memories of playing games on the NES and SNES consoles.

    "Completely flabbergasted" that Nintendo... has so steadfastly resisted getting involved in mobile-device gaming? Not in the slightest.

    First off, bear in mind that Nintendo essentially invented "mobile device gaming." They called it the Game Boy, and it was one of the most successful consoles of all time. Its successors are still doing well today.

    But that's not what you're talking about here, is it? You don't really mean mobile devices, you mean smartphones. Well, there's a perfectly good reason for that: Have you ever tried actually playing games on a smartphone? They suck!

    Smartphones are great for doing what they're designed for, but console-style gaming, rich in games whose gameplay style requires multiple buttons that can be manipulated by touch (without looking at them) and pressed at the same time is not one of them. It's no wonder that the most popular smartphone games have all had incredibly simplistic interfaces; that's all you can do. If you want to actually play console games on a smartphone OS, you basically need to get an OUYA. Nintendo's been wise to stay out of that particular mess thus far.

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