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Legal news

In which Microsoft are on the good side for once


Legal news of the week: Microsoft has lost a patent infringement case brought by Alcatel, the company that owns the rights to the MP3. That is, they don’t own the file format itself, but they own the patent on understanding what they mean.

Now, normally, “Microsoft losing a court case” would be Good News for computer users everywhere, because Microsoft generally aren’t a very nice company and seem to spend most of their time thinking up new ways to extract money from people.* This case isn’t, though, because software patents are a bad thing, a bad thing indeed. If you’re a geek you can skip this next bit, because you’ll already know why they’re a bad thing.

Software is, basically, a list of instructions for doing arithmetic. Forget all the flashy graphics you see on the screen. Forget your email and your IM programs. Computers are machines for pushing numbers around,** and computer software is a list of instructions for doing that. Remember doing long division at school? That was essentially a list of steps for working out division sums that are too hard to do in your head – software for your brain, in other words.

Now, imagine if the inventor of long division*** had patented it. Every time you did a long division sum, you’d have to pay him a royalty. If you invented a machine to do long divisions for you, you’d have to pay a bloody big royalty. That’s how patents work.

Software patents are even worse, because often they involve access to data which is otherwise locked up. All those MP3 files on your computer? There’s no practical use for them without decoding software. Decoding software is patented. Microsoft thought they’d paid the patent holders for the right to write a decoder and sell it with Windows – but then the patent holder changed, and the new owner thought otherwise. The courts agreed with them.

Imagine if the first person who ever thought of the idea of reading a book in the bath had patented it. They managed to get a patent on the following: “run bath, select book, get in bath, pick up book, hold book in a cunning way to avoid getting it wet, read.” That’s no different, essentially, from a software patent that involves reading data from a file. If someone had done that, then you could only read a book in the bath if you’d licensed the right to do so. That’s why software patents are bad and wrong.

In more amusing legal news, the right-wing UK Independence Party has been told to return over £350,000 in illegal donations, made by a businessman who wasn’t registered to vote at the time. The party think the ruling is ridiculous. It shines a light, though, on the underside of their philosophy. There are rules there to ensure that only British people with a stake in British politics can fund political parties. UKIP think the ruling is silly because the man is obviously British even though he couldn’t prove he was a British voter. Which just goes to show that they’re not interested in proof or evidence or process; their definition of Britishness seems to be that you’re Someone Like Us.

* which, to be fair, is what capitalist companies are supposed to do.

** that’s why they’re called “computers”, and not “communicators” or “info-readers”, despite that being their main use.

*** apparently the sixteenth-century Yorkshire mathematician Henry Briggs, according to this lecture from his old college

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