29 Jan 2007 pphaneuf   » (Journeyer)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder and patents

Okay, so I'm not writing a music player (yet). One could say my "faith" has weakened, where I am taking the opportunity of a re-ripping of my music library to switch from Ogg Vorbis to MP3. Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm a terrible human being, my soul will burn and everything.

A quick reminder on why MP3 is evil and how Ogg Vorbis will save your eternal soul: Thomson holds some patents on key technologies involved in the MP3 format, those technologies being in the form of mathematical concepts. Some people find the patenting of such intangible things to be stifling innovation, that many these concepts are inherent in nature, and that as such, anyone should be free to use them (some comparing this to patenting something like the Pythagorean theorem, as an algorithm to find the length of the hypothenuse of a right triangle).

After some soul searching, I feel that while this is true to some degree, it is not the most evil aspect of software patents. My issues with software patents are two-fold.

First, the way the process of obtaining those patents seems rather sketchy at best, quite regularly granting completely frivolous patents. Upon application, those often get overturned, but still, this costs money, and if I were to be sued over one, I would most likely be in deep financial trouble, no matter how frivolous the patent. In the case of MP3, I do not feel this is one of those, the thing being filled with psychoaccoustics, modified cosine transforms, polyphase quadrature filter, alias reduction formulas, and other such things guaranteed to give me a headache. These guys are no fly-by-night lawyers trying to make a quick buck, from what I can see.

Second, the duration of patents, for a low cost/revenue ratio industry (like software, as opposed to cars, which are expensive to manufacture) anyway, is quite excessive, in these days of rapid technological advances. Maybe that, yes, Pythagoras should have been granted a patent for his theorem, but the question is how soon should it have expired? Again, in the case of MP3, the oldest reference to those technologies I could find (didn't check very thoroughly!) was around 1986, which isn't shockingly old, but in terms of technology, is starting to get a little dated. I'd say that a 15-20 years expiration on that kind of patent wouldn't be too ridiculous either way, and I'm sure smart inventors would manage to make quite a bit of money in even less time.

So, in short, I'm not technically against software patents, but more against the way they are implemented right now. I suppose I also dislike the way some patent holders keep quiet about their portfolio, until everyone is using the technology, at which point they helpfully point out that every bloody living organism owes them money. Those make me angry.

In any case, for most users, patents are a bit immaterial, it's mostly for developers (especially of free software). It inflates the cost of their iPod by a few dollars, but they can't really tell the difference between that and the rest of the cost.

What's material to people right now, though is DRM, the so-called "digital rights management". Ensuring your rights are properly limited and constrained, that the rights of the poor media corporations aren't being trampled on by nasty people that want to listen or watch the content they lawfully paid for (pesky, those people!).

It's too bad this isn't being done with the arguably superior Ogg Vorbis, but compared to many of the other choices, MP3 is the choice with more freedom, compared to the PlaysForSure and FairPlays of the world. Pirates aren't being stopped, honest people get screwed and I forgot my point.

Syndicated 2007-01-29 22:10:16 (Updated 2007-01-29 22:15:00) from Pierre Phaneuf

Latest blog entries     Older blog entries

New Advogato Features

New HTML Parser: The long-awaited libxml2 based HTML parser code is live. It needs further work but already handles most markup better than the original parser.

Keep up with the latest Advogato features by reading the Advogato status blog.

If you're a C programmer with some spare time, take a look at the mod_virgule project page and help us with one of the tasks on the ToDo list!