Friday, January 20, 2006

The Piracy Calculator

Google clashes with feds in battle over online search requests

by Michael Liedtke, Associated Press
from the San Jose Mercury News, Jan. 19, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO - Google Inc. is rebuffing the Bush administration's demand for a peek at what millions of people have been looking up on the Internet's leading search engine - a request that underscores the potential for online databases to become tools of the government.

Mountain View-based Google has refused to comply with a White House subpoena first issued last summer, prompting U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales this week to ask a federal judge in San Jose for an order to force a handover of the requested records.

The government wants a list all requests entered into Google's search engine during an unspecified single week - a breakdown that could conceivably span tens of millions of queries. In addition, it seeks 1 million randomly selected Web addresses from various Google databases.

In court papers that the San Jose Mercury News reported on after seeing them Wednesday, the Bush administration depicts the information as vital in its effort to restore online child protection laws that have been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Google competitor Yahoo Inc., which runs the Internet's second-most used search engine, confirmed Thursday that it had complied with a similar government subpoena.

Although the government says it isn't seeking any data that ties personal information to search requests, the subpoena still raises serious privacy concerns, experts said, especially considering recent revelations that the White House authorized eavesdropping on domestic civilian communications after the Sept. 11 attacks without obtaining court approval. "Search engines now play such an important part in our daily lives that many people probably contact Google more often than they do their own mother," said Thomas Burke, a San Francisco attorney who has handled several prominent cases involving privacy issues. "Just as most people would be upset if the government wanted to know how much you called your mother and what you talked about, they should be upset about this, too."

The content of search request sometimes contain information about the person making the query. For instance, it's not unusual for search requests to include names, medical information or Social Security information, said Pam Dixon, executive director for the World Privacy Forum. "This is exactly the kind of thing we have been worrying about with search engines for some time," Dixon said. "Google should be commended for fighting this." Other search engines already have complied with similar subpoenas issued by the Bush administration, according to court documents. The cooperating search engines weren't identified. Yahoo stressed that it didn't reveal any personal information. "We are rigorous defenders of our users' privacy," Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako said Thursday. "In our opinion, this is not a privacy issue." Microsoft Corp. MSN, the No. 3 search engine, declined to say whether it even received a similar subpoena. "MSN works closely with law enforcement officials worldwide to assist them when requested," the company said in a statement.

As the Internet's dominant search engine, Google has built up a valuable storehouse of information that "makes it a very attractive target for law enforcement," said Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. The Department of Justice argues that Google's cooperation is essential in its effort to simulate how people navigate the Web. In a separate case in Pennsylvania, the Bush administration is trying to prove that Internet filters don't do an adequate job of preventing children from accessing online pornography and other objectionable destinations. Obtaining the subpoenaed information from Google "would assist the government in its efforts to understand the behavior of current Web users, (and) to estimate how often Web users encounter harmful-to-minors material in the course of their searches," the Justice Department wrote in a brief filed Wednesday.

Google - whose motto when it went public in 2004 was "do no evil" - contends that submitting to the subpoena would represent a betrayal to its users, even if all personal information is stripped from the search terms sought by the government. "Google's acceding to the request would suggest that it is willing to reveal information about those who use its services. This is not a perception that Google can accept," company attorney Ashok Ramani wrote in a letter included in the government's filing. Complying with the subpoena also would threaten to expose some of Google's "crown-jewel trade secrets," Ramani wrote. Google is particularly concerned that the information could be used to deduce the size of its index and how many computers it uses to crunch the requests. "This information would be highly valuable to competitors or miscreants seeking to harm Google's business," Ramani wrote.

Dixon is hoping Google's battle with the government reminds people to be careful how they interact with search engines. "When you are looking at that blank search box, you should remember that what you fill can come back to haunt you unless you take precautions," she said.

Traditional Knowledge: Intellectual Property to be Protected?

(Comtex Global News Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)
WASHINGTON, Jan 19,2006
(U.S. Newswire via COMTEX)

In advance of next week's Conventionon Biological Diversity (CBD) in Spain, the Institute for PolicyInnovation (IPI) hosted a policy luncheon yesterday to explore some of the issues at stake in the debate over "traditional knowledge."

Event host Dr. Merrill Matthews, resident scholar at IPI, opened the conference by noting that traditional knowledge (TK) "raises new questions about what is and isn't intellectual property."

Doug Neumann, senior conservation officer with the U.S. StateDepartment, explained that the U.S. is against patent disclosure (i.e. requiring patent applicants to disclose the origin of genetic resources in inventions) in part because it affects product development. "The big question is how we get any sort of TK protective systems andIPR (intellectual property rights) systems to work in harmony so that they minimize any grey areas," Neumann said. "We believe the WorldIntellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has the technical expertise to look at these issues rather than the CBD, which is more environmentally focused."

Presenting the NGO perspective, David Waskow, international program director for Friends of the Earth, pointed out, "There are many folks who would agree with (the US') view. Where they would differ with the US in practice is that the US has often pressed in trade agreements for countries to adopt certain kinds of intellectual property protection in ways that limit the ability of those national governments to in fact put the kinds of protections they would like to see in place."

Dr. Ananda Chakrabarty, professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and born in India, pointed out that the success ofIndia's recent economic growth is tied to its product patents. "Now that India has signed the TRIPS agreement ... there is a great opportunity for countries like India -- (including) China, Brazil and other developing countries -- to accept the fact that the future looks good. They will be able to generate new products to bring to the worldmarket." The conference did not seek to resolve all of the issues raised by traditional knowledge and intellectual property, but it did set the stage for future dialogue.

The Institute for Policy Innovation is an independent think tank basedout of Dallas, Texas.
Sonia Blumstein of the Institute for Policy Innovation

Patently Aggressive

Forgent Networks sues software giants for patent infringement. Is it protecting inventors--or driving a stake through the heart of innovation?
From: Issue 102 January 2006 Page 79
By: Jennifer Reingold

It's a gorgeous sun-soaked day in southwest Austin. At a generic glassoffice building in a random corporate park, the indoor waterfall gushes amerry greeting. In the light-filled boardroom of Forgent Networks, CEODick Snyder, a trim, freckled man with a broad smile, puts out a friendly hand.

It sure doesn't seem like the gates of hell. But for a lot of people in the software industry, this is Hades, and the seemingly mild-mannered Snyder is the three-headed dog at its door. That's because Forgent, which used to be an enterprise software company, has a new and quite profitable business strategy: Sue, sue, sue, and when all else fails, sue again. Forgent holds patents, the most significant of which, Patent No. 4,698,672--fondly known as just '672--is allegedly being violated by virtually every company that has ever used JPEG image compression, from camera manufacturers to software designers to cell-phone makers.

In the three years since Forgent decided there was more gold in subpoenas than in software, the company has collected a staggering $105 million inlicensing fees from the likes of Sanyo, Sony, and 48 other companies. Many of those that haven't paid up--a panoply of household names includingMicrosoft, Google, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard--have found themselves part ofa massive, 41-company lawsuit that will begin proceedings later this year.Forgent has filed another suit covering a different patent related to the digital video recorder against 15 major companies including Time Warnerand Comcast; that will go to court in 2007.

At a time when rampant piracy, the open-source movement, and the spread of technological expertise abroad have led to collective national hand-wringing over the state of American innovation, it's worth thinking about another challenge: the ever-increasing legal battles over who owns an idea. Forgent and its ilk--sometimes snidely referred to as "patent trolls"--have roiled the software industry. (The troll epithet has also been hurled at companies such as Acacia Research and NPT Inc., the latter of which is suing Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry [seeSquashing the BlackBerry?]). "I always thought 'patent gangster' was more appropriate," says Scott Watkins, a patent attorney at Steptoe & Johnson, speaking generally. "It's the old protection racket."

Some say Forgent's fight-back approach is the only recourse for small innovators against rich companies that try to steal their intellectual property. Others see Forgent as the exploiter, taking advantage of antiquated laws to hold creative enterprises up for ransom. "The Forgent business model has caused people to stop innovating," says an inventor in Forgent's market who didn't want to be identified for fear of legal retaliation. "It has had a chilling effect on anything new."

Back in the bright boardroom, it's hard to believe that this deserted suburban office is ground zero in the war over intellectual property. The place looks like it should have tumbleweeds rolling through it, with just 20 employees working out of an office building that once held 300 (most ofthe space has been subleased). It doesn't feel like a normal business, and that's because it isn't--a point made crystal clear when the public-relations guy turns on a tape recorder to ensure there's evidence should I accidentally misquote anyone.

"The ones that scream the loudest are also the ones on the other side. . . asking people to pay them for their patent work."

Believe me, I won't. Though Snyder, a 61-year-old former executive at HP and Dell, has a slow, folksy patter, he's also a competitive triathlete who thinks the infamous "Escape From Alcatraz" race, featuring an open-water swim in the 50-degree San Francisco Bay, is a great stress reliever. His big adversaries, he points out, are plenty aggressive when it comes to defending their own intellectual property. "The ones that scream the loudest," he says calmly, "are also the ones on the other side of the fence asking people to pay them for their patent work or asking them not to infringe on their patents." Snyder says he's simply doing his fiduciary duty by capitalizing on his shareholders' assets.

Not that there are so many assets to pick from these days. Forgent's previous incarnation, a video conferencing company called VTEL, fell on hard times in the late 1990s. In 2001, board member Snyder was brought in to right the company. He dropped video conferencing and tried to reinventForgent as a software business, but that didn't work too well either. The company lost $6.1 million in fiscal 2002. Cash-crunched, he and his board essentially began rummaging through thecompany closets--and found a treasure. Inventors working for CompressionLabs Inc., a company VTEL bought, had registered for patents on a process that Forgent now claims is used in JPEG compression.

Enter the briefcases and cuff links. Snyder first aimed his guns at Japan, a less litigious place than the United States, in hopes of setting a precedent. Forgent sent letters demanding a one-time license fee to cover alleged past and future infringement. The strategy worked: Staying out of court, Sanyo paid $15 million and Sony more than $16 million in fiscal 2002.

Emboldened, Snyder moved on to the U.S. market, going after more than a thousand companies that have used the JPEG in their products. For a while, Snyder used the settlements to fund other Forgent operations. After paying the lawyers their contingency fees of 50% or so, Forgent plowed much of the rest into its Alliance software business. But if '672 was a diamond, the software business was cubic zirconium. In fiscal 2004, Snyder finally wrote it down, and the company posted a $20.1 million loss.

Forgent was left with two businesses: the $3 million NetSimplicity, which offers meeting-planning software, and the lawsuit business. That means that for Forgent, licensing is the name of the game. Patent law allows acompany to force a violator to stop producing the item in question and pay compensatory damages, which can be tripled in the case of willful infringement. But that would kill the golden goose. "We want everyone to use this thing," says Michael Noonan, Forgent's senior director of investor relations. "The more ubiquitous it is out there, the better for us."

That's what happened with Pegasus Imaging, which agreed to license Forgent's technology in October 2002. "One thing you have to do is to lookat the risk," says Jack Berlin, Pegasus's president. "We could have beenexposed to millions of dollars in claims. When you see that sort of ratio, it was a no-brainer."

No one really knows whether or not Forgent's patents will hold up incourt; the company could collect anywhere from another $100 million-plus, according to an estimate from research firm J.M. Dutton & Associates, to zero. In October 2005 alone, three companies, including Research in Motion, decided to take out licenses from Forgent for undisclosed amounts.

Yet Forgent could also be bluffing, hoping that others will decide to fold first. If so, it has met a tough opponent in Microsoft, which sued Forgent even though Forgent hadn't yet sued it ("Microsoft is known to be very litigious," says Snyder, with no trace of irony). It charges that Forgent's patent was obtained fraudulently. "Microsoft did not come upwith anything new," says Snyder. "I'd point to $100 million-plus that says other people recognized [the patent] was valid." Microsoft wouldn'tcomment.

Other opponents are coming out of the woodwork as well, such as the nonprofit Public Patent Foundation, which on November 16 filed its own request that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office revoke the patent altogether. "I believe that the patent is invalid," says Dan Ravicher, the foundation's executive director, and it is "causing substantial public harm" by adding extra costs to an already taxed system for inventions and by threatening the JPEG standard that is now part of the public domain.

Some critics even question whether software patents like Forgent's ought to exist. "Software is a thought process," says Tom DeMarco, a fellow at the Cutter Business Technology Council, an IT consultancy. "To patent it is comparable to patenting induction or deduction." The European Union, for example, does not grant software patents.

That's hardly on the horizon in the United States. The number of patents granted has exploded to 187,170 in 2004, up from 66,176 in 1980. There has been a similar explosion in lawsuits, which usually cost at least $2 million to defend if they go to trial. "Now you can make the case that it's driving innovation offshore," says DeMarco. "If you want to start a new software company that does something imaginative and wonderful, you have every incentive to start that company in Slovenia or China or a place that doesn't have these rules."

In an attempt to stem the tide of patent-related lawsuits, in June 2005, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) introduced a bill, the Patent Reform Act of2005. But the bill has stalled in the House, in part because--as Snyderpoints out--many companies benefit from the current laws even as they decry them. Microsoft has decided to pursue an aggressive strategy offiling for 3,000 patents in fiscal 2005 alone, either as a defense or in hopes of bringing in licensing revenue. And Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft'sformer CTO, has created a company, Intellectual Ventures, that has purchased as many as 5,000 patents in the past few years.

For Forgent, though, the party is winding down. The good old '672 patentwill expire in October 2006--after which Forgent can still collect for past infringement, but nothing going forward. "It's a past gravy train,"says Watkins, "but they're not looking at a future gravy train." That's also why Forgent launched a new front in the battle in July 2005, suing 15 cable companies and cable-box manufacturers.

For all of Snyder's bravado, he seems a tad embarrassed that his job is more about litigating than innovating. "The whole notion that [we] are just a thorn in the side of humanity," he says, "I don't think theyunderstand how we arrived here. I view this as a metamorphosis, a way in which to responsibly take the company through a period of time to generate resources and to become something else. If you said, 'Is this what youwant to do for the next 15 years,' I'd probably say no." If he's right, thousands of software executives will probably wipe their brows in relief. But the lawyers will weep.

Jennifer Reingold is a Fast Company senior writer

Thursday, January 19, 2006


I went to see Woody Allen's Match Point yesterday. I am still somewhat flabbergasted that both Match Point and Brokeback Mountain managed to get into the top 5 nominations for best movie at the Golden Globes. Never mind that critics everwhere seem to be raving about them. Am I going mad or something? Does no-one else think that they are both decidedly average movies, if not actually bad ones. The only word I could think of after viewing Match Point was 'clunky'. Script, Acting, etc etc. Jonathan Rhys Myers remains well and truly a stage actor, the only emotional work being done by his eyes (teary = emotional, dry = cool/stolid). His voice is deadpan beyond belief. As for the dialogue, well I am reminded of the old Star Wars chestnut that 'You can write this *&^%, but you can't say it'. Really dreadful, not worthy of a student film presentation. Has Woody Allen never watched an episode of CSI?? Does he associate with actual people?

As for Brokeback, well I came out wondering if people would give it a second look if the characters happened to be a man and a woman rather than two guys? I'm guessing not. Simply as a relationship movie I feel it fails on so many levels. Actually, I came out not caring one way or the other. It was the romantic equivalent of the single-plot-spike narrative that has dogged Hollywood in the last 15 years, too simplistic to be interesting, lacking any sort of nuance in the 'complex relationship' stakes. Ooh, frustrated love, let's make a movie. I just didn't care, and I'm tired of going to movies where I don't care about the characters and their emotionally asphixiated lives. The Michelle Williams character in Brokeback was one I wanted to follow up on, but that tangent went nowhere in particular.

Monday, January 16, 2006

When you find yourself feeling deeper than you ever wished you could, sometimes something beautiful comes along to make a difference:

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

P2P users set up a political party in Sweden


A new political party has been set up in Sweden that plans to participate to country's upcoming general elections. The party is called Piratpartiet (Pirate party) and it aims to remove copyright laws from Sweden.

The party plans to remove all immaterial rights, including copyrights and patents and also plans to stop Sweden's participation in international copyright organizations, including WIPO and WTO and to make it illegal to put any restrictions on distribution of digital content (in form of DRM, copy protections, etc).

The party also states that it plans to uphold and push even further the strict privacy laws currently in place in Sweden and to make it illegal to track or monitor citizens' communications online and offline. People behind the party have made it very clear that their idea is not a joke.

To register an official party in Sweden, a party needs to get 1,500 signatures to support its cause. This organization has already managed to gather over 4,000 signatures in their first 24 hours, and they are now is in process of validating the signatures. Once validated, the party aims to register itself as an official party and to participate in next general elections.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Quotations about fear, courage, and change ...

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” (Maya Angelou)

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Every now and then I'll post other people's poems that make me feel good about being a human being.

Into Their True Gentleness
For Katherine Kavanagh

If love is the greatest reality,
and I believe it is,
the gentle are more real
than the violent or than
those like me who
hate violence,
long for gentleness,
but never in their own act
achieve true gentleness.

We fall in love with people
we consider gentle,
we love them violently
for their gentleness,
so violently we drive them to violence,
for our gentleness
is less real
than their breaking patience,
so falsely we accuse
them of being false.

But with any luck,
time half-opens our eyes
to at least a hundredth
part of our absurdity,
and lets them travel back
released from us,
into their true gentleness,
even with us.

Pearse Hutchinson

Monday, January 02, 2006

Time flies ...

I didn't realise it had been so long since I last posted here. I'll see if I can keep this going this year.

This will be a year for internal recalibration, methinks ... remembering or discovering what I'd like to be important to me about how to be in the world, and doing what I can to put that into practice.

Currently working my way through season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (again). Plenty of fodder there for social theory work, indeed :)

Happy New Year to all!