Paying the Price

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One of the problems with handling the issue of greenhouse gases is getting countries to accept their responsibilities. The difficulty is that there are lots of ways of looking at things. For example, although the developing countries like India and China are clearly soon going to be the main culprits here, they can - with justice - point out that countries in the West have been polluting for longer, and have therefore already contributed far more to global warming. The obvious solution here is to use a time-integrated output, which takes that into account.

But it turns out that things are even more complicated:

Economists now say that one-third of China's carbon dioxide emissions are pumped into the atmosphere in order to manufacture exported goods – many of them "advanced" electronics goods destined for developed countries.

That is, in some sense a third of China's current emissions are "ours", and should be added to our already swelling debit.

The good news is that such things can be calculated to come up with fair ways of allocating future cuts; the bad news is that not many countries are going to be mature enough to accept them.

Perhaps the easiest way to handle this would be through economics: if a green tax were applied to every product, there would be strong incentives to reduce their carbon footprint (and environmental impact generally). In this case, China would no longer be producing pollution on the West's behalf unless it could do it as "efficiently" as elsewhere. Unfortunately, that, too, requires a certain maturity on behalf the world's nations to accept such a system. It also probably requires more time to set up than have at our disposal....
Posted by Glyn Moody

Real Dan Lyons: Really Good

As so often, I'm with Matt on this one: good as he was when the Fake Steve jobs, Dan Lyons is even better as himself. This is particularly sharp analysis - not just of Apple, but of the twisted thinking of the PR people behind it:

If Nocera had simply refused to go off the record, the burden would have remained on Jobs to get his message out and to do it openly or suffer continued hits to Apple stock. By going off the record, Nocera let himself get played by Jobs and Apple. Consider this. What if Jobs is lying? I’m not saying he is. But gods have been known to lie, especially when dealing with mere mortals. Think of how Zeus looked upon humans and you get an idea how Jobs views pretty much everyone in the world who isn’t Steve Jobs.

If Apple lies in a press release, or if its CEO lies in an on-the-record statement, the company has problems. But if everything was off the record, who’s to know? Or maybe you don’t exactly lie but you kind of hint at something and shade the conversation and lead someone to believe something even without explicitly saying that thing.

If down the road it turns out Steve was lying and someone from the SEC or some lawyer in a civil suit wants to find out what was said in that conversation, they’ll have to subpoena Joe Nocera, and the New York Times will fight that request. Even if Joe Nocera wants to tell the world what Steve Jobs told him, he can’t. He made a deal. He went off the record. Even if Steve turns out to be lying, Joe Nocera is stuck.

More generally:

One of the many ironies and contradictions about Apple is that while the company presents this hip, open, cool image to the world, its PR machine is the most secretive, locked-down, hard-assed and disciplined of any company in tech, including IBM.

This is one reason why Apple sticks in my craw. As what Lyons has nicely dubbed a "freetard", I just find the company too keen on closed for my liking. That said, I think Shuttleworth is absolutely right that Apple is now the one to beat....

Posted by Glyn Moody

EPO Wins Patent for Jesuitical Casuistry

Wow, there are some clever bunnies up at the EPO these days. Try this for size:

Relying on a well-known and widely used definition, a computer-implemented invention is an invention whose implementation involves the use of a computer, computer network or other programmable apparatus, the invention having one or more features which are realised wholly or partly by means of a computer program. The term software, on the other hand, is ambiguous. It is generally understood as the implementation of an algorithm in source or object code, but without distinguishing between technical and non-technical processes.

As with all inventions, computer-implemented inventions are patentable only if they have technical character, i.e. solve a technical problem, are new and involve an inventive technical contribution to the prior art.

Right, so let's just go through that.

As the EPO says, software does not distinguish "between technical and non-technical processes". The reason it doesn't distinguish is because it is a completely factitious distinction: it doesn't exist. Software is just a bunch of algorithms working on data, outputting data; it doesn't solve "technical" problems, it solve mathematical ones. Software is mathematics.

But that's a bit of issue for the EPO, because that would mean that it could never, ever give patents for anything even vaguely software-ish. To get round this, it invents a mystical essence called "a computer-implemented invention", which is basically hardware plus software, with the magical property that the addition of the hardware makes the software patentable, even though the software is still inputting data, applying a few mathematical algorithms, and then outputting data. But to do this, the EPO has to dismiss that embarrassing concept known as "software" as "ambiguous" - by which it means "awkward for the purposes of its arguments".

You can tell that the EPO is not really convinced by its own logic here, since it goes to make the following emotional appeal:

Try to imagine a world without mobile telephones, refrigerators and washing machines, DVD players, medical imaging (X-ray, NMR), anti-lock braking systems (ABS) for cars, aircraft navigation systems, etc., etc.

We take many of the above items for granted in our everyday lives. Still, we realise that they contain highly complicated components. And, indeed, they all make use of computer-implemented inventions, frequently implemented by software. Nowadays such inventions can be found in all fields of technology, and in many cases the innovative part of a new product or process will lie in a computer program. Our lives have been immeasurably changed by these inventions and the benefit to individuals and society is enormous.

Think for a moment how much effort and investment has been put into the development and commercialisation of these products. Then ask yourself if the innovators would really have made that effort if they had not expected to benefit economically. Finally, ask yourself if these same innovators would have invested all the money and resources required to develop new or better products without the possibility of patent protection. The reality is that many important innovations have reached the market place with the help of the patent system.

Now, of course, what's really interesting about this argument is that it's been used before:

As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it got paid?

...

One thing you do do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free?

Bill Gates wrote that in 1976, never dreaming something like free software could not only exist, but thrive to the point of underming his own company. And so it is with all these wonderful inventions.

Today, more and more companies are routinely making available precisely this kind of system and embedded software as open source; patents are completely unnecessary to encourage this kind of innovation, and the EPO's argument here, as elsewhere, is specious. Indeed, it is downright wrong-headed: it is becoming clear that the best way to promote innovation and provide benefits to society is to make information freely available so that others can extend your work unhindered.

And so the argument for "computer-implemented inventions" fails both at a theoretical and at a practical level: such patents are worse than unnecessary, they are impediments to innovation and progress (as, most probably, are *all* patents.)

But I have to say, the EPO would have made fine Jesuits.

Originally posted at Open... This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales Licence. Please link back to the original post.

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