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What3Words sends legal threat to security researcher for sharing an alternative (techcrunch.com)
355 points by prostoalex 4 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 193 comments

Related thread from earlier today:

What3Words – The Algorithm - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=27015046 - May 2021 (148 comments)

I still don't understand how this company managed to get a patent for what amounts to using coordinates to look up words in a table.

It's also not the first todo this, there is prior art. For example this person was asking about what they would need to do to invalidate it because they built basically the same thing, but using 5 words before this company even had patents. https://patents.stackexchange.com/questions/13629/i-had-inve...

Also on the OpenStreet Wiki, the EU seems to have doubts on the patents Validity. https://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/What3words#Patent_Validi...

The American patent office assumes that if there is no prior patent then the new patent describes something new and novel.

It's designed this way to encourage Americans to patent everything and anything, in order to dominate the intellectual property market.

Woah, back up. The patent system is messed up for software but that wasn't the intent. You weren't supposed to be able to defend algorithm-based patents in court. Software is protected by copyright.

The patent office doesn't do much background checking. Enforcement happens in the court system. And, some courts such as those in Texas have handed cases to patent trolls.

Patents, by design, reward innovators and contribute to the public good by exchanging information for protection. When you see a big company owning a lot of patents, that's the system at work. IP rights allow the company to defend their interests and pay larger salaries. Without IP rights, individual creators really have little chance to move up because wealthy individuals or businesses will just copy and mass-produce the concept. In order to remain involved you would have to play by their rules, like what happened to Jack Ma. Everyone answers to the government there because there's no delegation of power to courts to sort out IP rights.

> Patents, by design, reward innovators and contribute to the public good by exchanging information for protection.

Design and practice are two different things. Patents, in practice, are hopelessly broken when you can buy a fairly general patent from someone else, sit on it without ever actually using it, and then sue someone else who had no way of knowing the patent even existed. And that's not just in software.

AFAIK it's primarily abused in software because software is so easy to "create". Again that's why algorithmic patents weren't supposed to be defendable in court.

Outside of software patents which I don't think should exist, I don't see a problem with buying and sitting on a patent for something truly innovative. The original creator was rewarded, the knowledge becomes public, and the buyer can sit on it as they like for ~15 years. If it's a profitable concept they are wasting money by not developing it.

The problem comes when courts uphold illegitimate patents. Fortunately there are companies who will stand up to this, such as Newegg and Cloudflare.

> and the buyer can sit on it as they like for ~15 years. If it's a profitable concept they are wasting money by not developing it.

How so? Any competition is unable to proceed because of the patent, and all you need to do is put some money towards renewing it every X years. Now, if there was competition, of course you would lose out from developing it. But there can be no competition because of the patent, so at the time you hold it nobody can develop the patent.

I invent the toaster and sell the patent to Cuisinart. They decide not to produce it and sit on it for 15 years. Then the patent expires and anyone can make toasters. Now Cuisinart has lost out on growing a reputation for making toasters. That's their loss and the public benefits because they have toaster technology. And, the original inventor was rewarded and can go on to invent more things or inspire others to invest time in inventing because it pays off.

You're not thinking widely enough. The following is not the real story, just an hypothetical example:

You're Codake, a company that sells chemical photography materials.

Some person invents digital photography, you find out and buy the patent from them for 500K.

Digital photography would hurt your profits so you just sit on it for the 15 years, maybe start designing some products around it in the last 3 years of the patent to be ready for when it expires.

You made more money and society lost out for 15 years, all because the inventor probably wasn't used to seeing large checks and didn't shop around when the largest photography company offered them more money than they ever saw in their life.

Even the inventor got screwed, by selling the patent they got a nice house even though it was probably worth hundreds of millions.

I dislike patents but there's also the element of risk. Most inventions flop.

Yes, the above scenario is quite risky. And if the inventor "got screwed" then that's on them for agreeing to sell for a price that's less than the value of the invention. That said, execution is also very important. Ideas don't build companies.

Personally, I wonder if your argument changes if the thing in question is not a toaster but something the public wouldn't want to wait 15 years for. Medical vaccine, groundbreaking software, or an improved biological process using less antibiotics. A toaster doesn't really have immediacy, but this policy affects things that do.

I don't have a solution, just a vague feeling that in 2021 15 years seems like a very long time (for software, at least.)

What company would buy the IP for a vaccine and not produce it? They cost billions to fund. It isn't sustainable to buy and sit on patents unless there are judges willing to uphold invalid patents for patent trolls, which is what has been happening with software patents.

> Patents, by design, reward innovators and contribute to the public good by exchanging information for protection.

Patents are politics. Politics is always a murky morass of compromises, and it's hard to say what is by design. (And, no, you can't trust the name of an act or even its formulation to tease out the real and differing intentions of the lawmakers who proposed or voted for it.)

> IP rights allow the company to defend their interests and pay larger salaries.

I can believe the first part. But I don't see how IP rights translate into higher salaries?

(Yes, in the trivial sense of _allowing_ them, perhaps. But not in the implied sense of making it more likely.)

> I don't see how IP rights translate into higher salaries?

When a company can defend its IP, it earns more profit and can invest in itself more. One way to invest in itself is to pay higher salaries to attract talent.

Other than small bumps to bonus multipliers, big companies don’t share higher profits with employees.

Of course they do. Google pays some of the highest salaries in tech because they managed to become so profitable. I'm saying long term, profitable companies who want to reinvest in themselves will pass profits on to employees because they need talent to make their products. There are certainly companies who decide not to reinvest, and simply extract profit. They become the dinosaurs.

Google literally colluded with other tech companies to avoid passing on those profits to employees.

That happened once they became a top-paying employer. You get there by paying high salaries.

Do you say that at Google salaries increase with profits and are not capped by "fair amount for your location"?


Not sure what "alt" is. I just answer when the topic and my current focus intersects :)

They most likely mean an alternate account. Like an alter ego.

Yes, I already agree with the strict ability part.

But eg just giving companies cash would also trivially increase their ability to pay higher salaries. But obviously, that's not really something anyone advocates for.

> that's not really something anyone advocates for.

Right because cash comes from government which comes from taxes which come from companies' profit. Cash has value because governments put some limits on how much there is. Of course, they do end up printing some and dilute the value. They don't just hand it out willy nilly.

You are right about cash.

And even if there was a windfall, eg imagine something silly like a gold meteorite just falling down on the treasury building: there are always opportunity costs to consider.

But monopoly profits aren't too different: they don't just fall from the sky either. An enforced monopoly like those granted from a patent works by restricting what other people can do.

They do, when competition forces them to.

I guess one _can_ make some kind of argument about how adding government enforced monopolies, ie patents, increases that kind of competition. But it would have to be a somewhat sophisticated one.

That's right, it's a temporarily granted monopoly in return for publishing the tech. The argument isn't so sophisticated.

Problem is that it doesn't really work.

Most patents are written in such a way to be maximally defendable/enforceable in court, and minimally useful for reproduction. Often you need to pair them with lots of trade secrets to get anything to work.

The other common argument in favour of patents is that they reward innovation. And that might or might not be an argument that actually works. Patents certainly also hinder innovation, so it's an empirical question which effect dominates, and whether any net beneficial effect is big enough to overcome our basic economic presumption against encouraging monopolies.

Patents do not hinder innovation. Without them, the richest companies would steal every new idea that showed promise.

Why only the richest companies?

Wouldn't everyone be copying all the best ideas from everyone else? Wouldn't that be a good thing? Both in general and for innovation?

(And even if only the richest companies did this, they would still have to compete against each other's copy-cat implementations of those ideas.)

We don't necessarily have to re-hash this discussion, other people already had it, eg at https://sciencebusiness.net/news/79887/The-Great-IP-Debate%3...

In any case, whether patents help or hinder innovation is an empirical question that deserves study! Instead of just assuming that they _must_ encourage innovation, because they say so.

You can also get a start on the literature by following the sources of this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economics_and_patents#Innovati...

> Wouldn't everyone be copying all the best ideas from everyone else? Wouldn't that be a good thing? Both in general and for innovation?

No because this incentivizes copying over innovation. There is little reason to invest in R&D when anyone can copy your idea. Consider the COVID vaccines. Each cost billions in R&D. If they could be copied then a company that specializes in production could invest all its money into that and spend nothing on R&D. Eventually no one will be willing to invest in innovation until someone comes up with the idea of protecting IP again.

Btw, that defense means that other people will make less money (or that there is less consumer surplus).

Not really. If you have a system that defends ingenuity, then new ideas will flourish, providing more jobs, and more chances for entrepeneurs to create. It comes down to this- people will not accept the state of banging their head against the wall over the same problems forever. We live to solve problems, and by defending new ideas, we give credit to creators and encourage creativity.

You can argue that solving one problem creates a set of new ones and I won't disagree. Those are for the next generation to address.

The empiric question is whether that system actually promotes ingenuity.

It also hinders ingenuity, especially prominently displayed with software patents.

> [...] we give credit to creators and encourage creativity.

You can do that just fine without patents, too.

Eg socially by recognising their genius. But also more materially via trade secrets.

And as you say, people don't like banging their head against the wall over and over again, and that's true whether there's a patent system or not.

> Eg socially by recognising their genius.

That's ripe for corruption. Social recognition would largely be in the hands of the wealthiest, i.e. the government in that scenario. You want individuals to be able to generate their own wealth so they can defend themselves. Patents, capitalism, etc are a means of delegating power to the people. Keeping all that control in the hands of the government is costly and less efficient.

> The patent office doesn't do much background checking.

That's not correct. By law, for every patent application, the patent examiner is supposed to conduct a thorough search of the prior art; some patent examiners have long experience in their "art units." [0]

Also by law: Inventors must disclose, to the patent examiner, all information of which they are aware that is "material to patentability." [1]

Well-trained patent attorneys take the view that it's far better to tell the patent examiner about everything you can think of that might be significant. Doing so helps to strengthen any resulting patent against infringers' claims that the invention would have been obvious.

Think about how an infringement lawsuit will often go down: The accused infringer will generally try to claim that the patent is invalid because of one or more particular prior-art references. When that happens, one of the best possible responses, by the patent owner's trial counsel, is, in effect, Oh yeah? Well, ladies and gentlemen [of the jury], the patent examiner already considered those references, and s/he concluded that the invention was indeed patentable, so whom are you going to believe — the patent examiner, or the infringer who stole my client's invention?)

As a more-or-less random example, see a 2017 patent issued to IBM, where the cited prior art included 32 prior patents and 3 non-patent publications — all cited by the inventors. [2]

[0] https://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/pac/mpep/s2103.html

[1] https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/37/1.56

[2] Dixit et al., "Performing sequence analysis as a relational join," U.S. Patent No. 9,589,018, https://patents.google.com/patent/US9589018B2/en?oq=9%2c589%...

> Also by law: Inventors must disclose, to the patent examiner, all information of which they are aware that is "material to patentability."

This is basically "pretty please". If something is uncomfortable it's not "material to patentability" according to corporate patent people. (Including me sending them "hi, look at this prior art")

> This is basically "pretty please." If something is uncomfortable it's not "material to patentability" according to corporate patent people.

If those "corporate patent people" are lawyers, they're betting their law licenses: Intentional withholding of material information can result in the patent's being held unenforceable for that reason alone [0], and quite possibly temporary- or permanent disbarment for any patent attorney found to have engaged in such misconduct. [1]

[0] See, e.g., https://casetext.com/case/deep-fix-llc-v-marine-well-contain..., in which a highly-regarded federal district judge in Houston held that a patent attorney had intentionally withheld material information from the patent examiner; the case is discussed at https://www.ipwatchdog.com/2020/02/26/inequitable-conduct-li... As another example in which patent attorneys were likewise held to have engaged in inequitable conduct, see https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=455051935074519...

[1] See generally the discussion in an amicus brief (search the document for "disbar), at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/17/17-1616/52679/2018... (the Supreme Court denied the petition for certiorari, as discussed at https://www.patentdocs.org/2018/10/supreme-court-denies-cert...)

That's what the law states, in practice, ridiculous patents are granted as a matter of course.

And, in practice, most patent infringement lawsuits go down like this: "We own this patent and have a team of well-funded lawyers to defend it, we've assessed that you and your company are not financially capable of defending yourself and so we are willing to offer you a substantial licensing agreement as settlement. We suggest you take it."

[0] Sideways Swinging: https://patents.google.com/patent/US6368227B1/en

[1] Vacation Auto-responding: https://patents.google.com/patent/US9547842

[2] A rounded-bezel display: https://patents.google.com/patent/USD670286

[3] A tree branch: https://patents.google.com/patent/US6360693

[4] Hierarchical folders to organize files on a computer: https://patents.google.com/patent/US8473532

[5] A car windshield: https://pdfpiw.uspto.gov/.piw?PageNum=0&docid=D0786157&IDKey...

[6] Bilateral and multilateral decision making: https://patents.google.com/patent/US8069073B2/en

The EFF even has a monthly "stupid patent" post: https://www.eff.org/issues/stupid-patent-month

I think this is redefining some important words. how about

> Patents, by design, reward people churning out patent applications and extract rents by monetizing monopolies for technical concepts at expense of the public.

The set of patent applicants and actual innovators overlaps a little but not much.

You can try to defend many different kinds of monopolies using the jobs argument. A lot of things, like eg shoes, would be more expensive, and have higher paid positions for the employees, if their production was artificially constrained.

Algorithm-based are bad for inovations. Just imagine patents on sorting algorithms or algorithms like th sieve of Eratosthenes.

It's also done by political policy to make it look like America is still "very innovative". It would make politicians (and other people) look bad if the number of patents started falling precipitously. I believe America is still innovative, but not as much as the number of patents might suggest.

The purpose of the patent system is to incentivize people to publish the details of their inventions instead of keeping them secret, thereby advancing the state of the art. The limited-time monopoly is the incentive.

Except the limited-time monopoly becomes an until-the-end-of-time monopoly, and has a more toxic effect on innovation and creativity than what would exist in its absence.

You’re thinking of copyright which seems infinite. Patents aren’t

you're right, my bad

Patents expire all the time...

> The American patent office assumes that if there is no prior patent then the new patent describes something new and novel.

They don't just look for prior patents, they look for prior art (which includes any public research papers, presentations, products, etc.) as well. So if someone else did the thing you claim to have invented (even if they didn't patent it), you can't get a patent.

And even if someone didn't do the thing you're claiming, but they did something that makes your claimed invention an obvious thing to do, you also can't get a patent.

The obviousness standard is generally harder to overcome than the novelty standard.

That's the theory. In practice it works as was described above - they look for existing patents. Looking for prior work to any degree would presumably make the cost (and time) astronomical (or at least not covering what they're paid), as a general rule. The world is very different from when the patent system was established.

It's possible that in some fields, the PTO focuses on patents because so many of the innovations are patented.

But this doesn't fit my experience, having worked for well over a decade in Silicon Valley (first as a lawyer, and then as a founder). I could be wrong — this is just the sense I've gotten from talking with patent prosecutors at my old firm, and from talking with my outside counsel about our prosecution strategy.

Around 11 years ago, there was a South African startup called Waytag [0] [1]. It was started by some business consultant guys, who I assumed didn't understand the lack of novelty in their idea (from a patent perspective).

Their idea was similar, minus the algorithm. You could assign names to places, and people would use their proprietary system to find them.

They filed for patents in various countries, US included.

Here's their European patent: [2], status withdrawn. The US equivalent is patent US20120246195A1. I can't find its history, nor a post on Patents Stackexchange, to detail the history.

Someone applied to have it invalidated, on the premise that there was existing prior art.

My reading of the Patents question, is that this person filed an opposition in the UK. Has anyone ever tried doing same in the US? Or has some legal time lapsed?

[0] https://ventureburn.com/2010/06/waytag-changing-the-way-we-u...

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10961677

[2] https://patents.google.com/patent/EP2488969A1/en

The threat doesn't mention the patent though, they claim copyright for the code and data has been violated.

Yeah, that part makes this whole thing smell really fishy. The researcher claims it was done through reverse engineering which would not be a violation of copyright. They'll have to show that someone had the opportunity to see their code and then copied it. Patents would arguably be an easier defense since you only need to show similarity and independence of invention doesn't matter.

As I understand they designed it to give the same words as what3words does for each location. That's what w3w may consider violation of copyright for data by itself.

A patent breach would be creating alternative implementation with a different dictionary or a different mapping

OTOH, the words aren't artistically chosen. They are chosen by a computer for each number. You can think of the words as numbers in another form.

And interfacing with the same system would require the same words.

I understand the argument that a curated list of words is copyrightable, but in this instance I don't think we're just talking about a list of words. We're talking about an algorithm that turns numbers into certain words.

I could see it going either way, but I'd like to think it would fail to be copyrightable in the court.

Well, IDK it's not like there was an open standard for assigning words to locations, and w3w made an implementation for it. Both the mapping and the software for it was created by w3w and are proprietary to them. Interfacing with it would mean copying entire product verbatim, which I don't think is defendable.

There are publicly available location methods like national addressing systems or coordinates, or one can create one's own and make it public. But honestly, while all my sympathies are with open source movement, and I'm generally critical to copyright, I don't understand why everyone seems to think you can treat things other people created as a commodity and require free access to it.

You wouldn't be copying the product, you'd be reimplementing the product.

Could you imagine if someone couldn't create a second kind of typewriter because it used the same letters?

The words in this case are no more unique than letters of the alphabet.

Look at it this way: If I saw one of these 3 word addresses and needed to know where it was, should it be illegal to do the calculations by hand instead of paying this company to translate it for me?

Assuming "no" to the above, should it be illegal to write my own program to save myself the labor? Should it be illegal to use my program for others? Share the program with others?

At what step does it become wrong to convert information from one form to another?

Likewise, if a system required an address in this format, should it be illegal to do the calculation myself, etc etc?

I think none of that should be illegal.

What is illegal and should be illegal is copying their code directly without an agreement/license. Even taking the list of codes and their translations wholesale (copying them from the code or database) is in the grey area for me. But reverse engineering them should not.

Patents can be challenged. You would need to file a lawsuit though if the filing challenge dates are past. Prospective patents are announced in a government gazette

They can but it is more expensive than filing them and you generally need deep pockets to do so. The issue with US patents specifically is that the whole system is rigged to big corporations flooding the system with patents that are not challenged because the patent offices are underfunded. This allows these big corporations to create a defensive buffer that they use against each other and much smaller competitors. Challenging that requires deep pockets. Companies like Apple, routinely settle patent licensing conflicts outside the courts. E.g. Nokia still receives a fair bit of revenue from them for patents the iphone and related products obviously infringe upon. Likewise Qualcomm taps into mobile phone sales revenue using their heavily patented proprietary solution for building 4G and 5G modems.

But like patents or not, they are real and they are a factor to take into account when doing business.

In this case, what3words seems to have genuinely come up with a way to translate coordinates into pronounceable words. You might not agree their method is particularly interesting, sophisticated, valuable, etc. But a similar enough method did not really exist prior to them. And they patented that method. And they got the patent. What that means legally is that the claims in the patent are legally enforceable against others doing a me too service. Unless they challenge all of those claims of course. The issue with prior art is that it usually only affects some of the claims. So, you might feasibly manage to weaken the patent somewhat in court at great cost but probably not in it's entirety.

So, e.g. Apple or Google suddenly promoting a service that allows you to refer a map location on their using a bunch of words would be a problem as it would obviously infringe on one or more claims in the patent. Of course they have deep enough pockets that they could try to challenge the patent. But they might lose. It's more likely they'd attempt an acquisition and add the patent to their portfolio. That in a nut shell is why what3words might be considered a good investment by some: they are an obvious acquisition target with a customer base, some revenue, a brand name, etc. To me 80M raised in funding sounds excessive though. But it explains why they are eager to defend their IP: without that their valuation tanks.

This lawsuit interestingly is not about the patent but about copyright. I assume the list of words used by their patented algorithm is the issue here. That list of words is not part of the patent. That copyright seems defensible as well. It's a list they came up with, that they own the copyright of, that is essential to them and somebody else is publishing that list without their permission. Copyright exists to allow people to put a stop to that sort of thing. Hard to argue against that.

OpenStreetMap seem to have missed a trick. The GB patent was thrown out for being obvious, and the report on the exam is public. They also suggested withdrawing the application due to the EU one being filed.

Couldn’t you get around this by just making it a trade secret and not publishing it? Your competitor can’t ask to see your source code (assuming it’s compiled). Patent trolls deserve whatever they have coming. It’s one thing if they have a novel idea but if they knowingly sit on a patent of a fundamental method that was given to them in error, they don’t deserve any consideration.

From TFA: “This is not a battle worth fighting,” he said in a tweet. Toponce told TechCrunch that he has complied with the demands, fearing legal repercussions if he didn’t.

Okay, but let's see what they wanted: "The letter also demands that he disclose to the law firm the identity of the person or people with whom he had shared a copy of the software, agree that he would not make any further copies of the software and to delete any copies of the software he had in his possession."

Umm, F-THAT!! I will not send you personal contact info of anyone for anything without a warrant/suponea for any of my clients/customers/users/friends. Anyone that would be willing to do that should have that tattooed across their foreheads so anyone in the future will know.

My guess is you have never found yourself in this kind of legal situation.

In my experience, as someone that was detained for the first time at the age of 14 by the secret service for counterfeiting, has multiple subsequent arrests, and despite all that actually became a lawyer myself, while a lawyer later in life was abducted and kidnapped at gun point managed to escape by jumping out of a moving car and tracked down the guy 24 hours later and delivered him to the police (or police to him) - so I feel I have some life experience - it’s the person screaming the loudest about what they would do in the shoes of others that is usually the least likely to actually do it.

Unless you can say what you have done in like circumstances you don’t know.

So before you go around championing marking people with tattoos in order to readily identify them, at least consider where in history that very concept comes from. My suggestion if you feel so strongly, is help, maybe by donating money for a legal fund, or at minimum show a little compassion and moral support, but don’t tell someone else what you would do in their shoes and how you’d punish them if they don’t show the same moral convictions you pretend to have without being put to the test.

> I will not send you personal contact info of anyone for anything without a warrant/suponea

Unless you're (a) swimming in money, (b) have some kind of strong (and free?) legal/financial support behind you to battle such a thing, (c) are not in the US, or (d) are so poor that you have nothing to lose anyway, this sounds like a rather incredible claim. Most people facing potentially massive lawsuits would probably cave.

It’s tempting to think that being “right” - in principle, objectively, or even legally - gives superpowers over legal proceedings. It doesn’t. Even a brief brush against targeted litigation will clear up this confusion quickly and painfully. You’ll be broke, and therefore defeated by default, long before you’ll be vindicated.

This opens up an interesting discussion point. Is there a way to reform the legal system to make it depend less on how much money you have?

edit: I like our current legal system, but I know Europe has the (Roman/Napoleonic?) inquisitorial system, if any Europeans could contribute and note if that has different outcomes? Or just any wild ideas on how to tweak the system to give more equal footing that isn't based on money.

I think one thing that would help would be to broaden the number of cases where legal fees can be awarded. Another thing that is not currently the case would be to work on simplifying the legal system to the point where a well educated person can take some time studying the law, at least well enough to defend themselves against baseless accusations. The ABA has made it a point to lobby states in order to increase the number of situations where professional lawyers are required (kind of like what TurboTax has done with the tax code).

Even with a simplified laws and legal proceedings, obviously not everyone would be in a position to defend themselves. However, many of those people could probably find a legally astute relative or friend to help them. There will always be a need for public defenders or something similar, though, since not everyone has a good support network.

To be honest though, I think the only really long term solution is for radical reform to the economy in general is the abolishment of private property. Private property, including intellectual property in particular, is always going to give disproportionate power to the wealthy. We should reward people for actual labor (not necessarily the same amount for the same hours), not because they already have giant stacks of cash.

The US took a step towards that with CASE Act that was recently passed, establishing what is basically a small claims court for copyright infringement. The big problem with the existing situation is attorneys fees can be over $50k for a relatively simple case, and the average case costs over $200k. With the new system the process is streamlined and there is no need to hire an attorney, and attorneys fees will not be awarded to the prevailing party, except in cases of bad faith. The total damages are also limited to $30k, and $15k in statutory damages per infringement, so if you prevail it is less likely to be appealed

Parts of the UK and several EU countries have a similar system with a small claims court for copyright cases under a certain limit with a limited discovery, where attorneys are not needed in addition to the regular courts.

In the UK there is no such thing as a small claims court. A small claim is lodged in a county court. Easily done online.

In England and Wales there is a small claims track in the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court

Well, one obvious alternative would be to decide that everyone has a right to legal support, similar to how most countries have decided that anyone has a right to healthcare. Similar as for healthcare there could be a single payer system for legal support. Everyone could pay a bit more tax, and then get legal support when needed. Main question is how you keep costs under control, and avoid abuse of the system.

Could be done, not sure if it would be a better system...

Loser should pay both sides legal fees by default, but the judge should have the discression to change this and also to cap costs based on what is reasonable.

Actually basing the legal system on money might not be the worst. Certainly better than basing it on influence and connections.

About your question: you might like this paper https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?arti...

It doesn't offer any answers, and it's about criminal justice; but it's good food for thought about unintended consequences.

See also the excellent http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Legal%20Systems/LegalSystemsCo... as parodied in https://slatestarcodex.com/2020/03/30/legal-systems-very-dif... and reviewed in https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/11/13/book-review-legal-syst...

"You’ll be broke, and therefore defeated by default, long before you’ll be vindicated."

Unless maybe the ACLU or EFF take up their defense pro-bono.

Alas, not being in the US does not protect against the American legal system.

The outrage many Americans on HN extol over the GDPR is amusing when it’s US law that has been exported globally for decades.

Well, I don't like neither US nor EU meddling with people in other parts of the world.

EU doesn’t meddle as long as you have nothing to do with the the EU.

Kim Dot Com on the other hand...

IANAL, but since you aren't actually in court, nor are you benefiting financially from the situation, couldn't you just...lie and say you don't have the contact information of anyone you sent it to? Or hell, just lie and say you didn't send it to anyone?

IANAL either but I would imagine if they gather any past or future data to suggest otherwise you might paint a target on your back. Not sure if there are any terms around that per se buy at least if it does come to a court case, I imagine having lied probably wouldn't help your case.

Or if published publically provide the name of everyone everywhere...

It seems Aaron Toponce is in the US (UT) and the company is in the UK.

Hypothetically, he were in the EU, I understand it would be illegal to provide the personal information as requested (i.e. of anyone who had not explicitly consented to the transfer of their data to an explicitly named third party).

Maybe there's a way to give the GDPR more teeth by punishing businesses who operate in the EU "legally" while outside the EU are not treating people as well.

U.K. is still covered by gdpr

The GDPR no longer applies to the UK (although it does apply to UK organisations operating in our marketing to the EU). From ICO: https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/dp-at-the-end-of-the-tr...

“ The GDPR has been incorporated into UK data protection law as the UK GDPR – so in practice there is little change to the core data protection principles, rights and obligations found in the UK GDPR. ”

Right - four months in, there hasn't yet been any divergence, but the GDPR no longer applies to the UK. You don't have recourse to EU enforcement measures or courts.

A case like this usually means you've screwed so badly, you're going out of business anyways. Again, cops do not enter a house without a warrant, and lawyers don't get anything for free without getting a subponea. It's not a hard thing to stand up to make the opfor at least do the leg work, and then make it as expensive for them as you can.

Once you do receive a subponea, you get to then see exactly how it is worded. Converting all of the data to hex or binary, and then printing it out at a 4pt font on greenbar paper with one character per line might not be explicitly stated as something not to do. If the request comes in as "delivered exactly as it is stored electronically" providing binary would seem apropos.

> Once you do receive a subponea, you get to then see exactly how it is worded. Converting all of the data to hex or binary, and then printing it out at a 4pt font on greenbar paper with one character per line might not be explicitly stated as something not to do. If the request comes in as "delivered exactly as it is stored electronically" providing binary would seem apropos.

Do this only if you want to catch a contempt of court charge.

I see this kind of thinking on HN a lot (though to be fair, it’s not limited to HN). If a court asks for data, you give them the data they ask for, or you straight-up sue them if the data is somehow privileged or the request is unconstitutional. There is no space for individual cleverness when dealing with legal stuff, and judges do not take kindly to “bUt i FoLlOwEd ThE InStRuCtIoNs!”-style defenses.

Many people seem to beleive the justice system behaves like a set of if...then clauses. I blame the mass production of crappy US courtroom drama - people start thinking it's how the real world works.

> Once you do receive a subponea, you get to then see exactly how it is worded. Converting all of the data to hex or binary, and then printing it out at a 4pt font on greenbar paper with one character per line might not be explicitly stated as something not to do. If the request comes in as "delivered exactly as it is stored electronically" providing binary would seem apropos.

And if you need legal assistance to do something like interpret the wording sufficiently accurately to avoid running into further legal trouble, expensive for you as well.

Maybe you just haven't done anything dangerous enough to warrant that sort of attention so you can have the luxury of that unchallenged opinion.

Unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily have to be dangerous to be the target if a lawsuit like this.

@cybergibbons also discovered that whatever algorithm they use has the unfortunate property that points fairly close together only differ in whether one word is singular or plural.

For support to be sent to the wrong location in an emergency situation just because "fields" was misheard as "field" or vice versa is unconscionable.


The company simply denied that the analysis was correct.

What3Words has always confused me. It has a bunch of misleading encodings, it claims to be somehow innovative when there's prior art, and they are very heavy handed on the legal side of things.

And it isn't even like it's difficult to come up with. Here's my 5-minute implementation of something similar from a couple years ago: [0][1]

Which encodes to 10cm, and not just a few meters.

[0] https://j6map.netlify.app/

[1] https://git.sr.ht/~shakna/j6

W3W have shorter words for urban areas and longer words for rural areas.

And this in various languages (all incompatible to each other, obviously).

I think the bigger problem is W3W some how got a patent on basically using a fixed pointed number (aka fixed size grids) as a look up into a table. Nothing is too complicated or really innovative about using bits to look up words in a table.

Their table has about ~40000 entries. And all it basically does is concats the two fixed point numbers into one longer binary number and splits that into 3 different numbers. Then each number is used to lookup a word. It's also quite bad compared to other geo-hashes that have hierarchical structure that can get more accurate as you specify more information.

Yeah, why would international compatability be good thing for a location service?

Snarkiness aside, I never understood the benfit of W3W ompared to existing things like coordinates and location sharing using Googlemaps, Whatsapp and so on.

> Snarkiness aside, I never understood the benfit of W3W ompared to existing things like coordinates and location sharing using Googlemaps, Whatsapp and so on.

Relaying coordinates over static-filled radios, with background noise like the sea, etc. Basically, emergency situations where if you can't hear a number clearly it can be significant.

Unfortunately, W3W encodes using words that can create problems in those circumstances too. (Like plurals misdirecting rescuers. [0]).

[0] https://twitter.com/isleofmandan/status/1386455377949122561

Ah, so what e.g. the military does with their maps? Deviding them into "code worded" grids, only being public? Yeah, that's a use case.

But in order to use that, don't you need:

- GPS in order to know your location - some type of communication (cell,...) to tell someone

W3W being an app implies cell phones, sending a set of ccordinates, even by SMS, is much faster in these cases, isn't it? Unless you are in the total wilderness, only radio. Which either limits range (handhelds) or means you have a range (CBS,...) which requires a license and proper training in most places. And communicating your position should be basic stuff during training I assume.

The whatfreewords.org site, including the source code, is archived here: https://archive.is/e26a7

(Internet Archive's Wayback Machine has it manually excluded from their index, but this site is still fine.)

what3words is an app which, when installed, will provide 3 words which correspond to a location, but the location can only be decoded by someone else who has access to the what3words name resolution service or has the app installed.

They've raised $39* million dollars in funding and they're "helping improve businesses around the world, and paving the way for social and economic progress in developing nations" [1]. Because developing nations really want to use a 3rd party app with a 'proprietary naming convention' to help them map and develop their land.

[1] https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/what3words

Apparently, yes, developing nations are happy to do that: https://qz.com/705273/mongolia-is-changing-all-its-addresses...

(Article from 2016 describing how all post addresses in Mongolia were switched to what3words addresses)

> Because developing nations really want to use a 3rd party app with a 'proprietary naming convention' to help them map and develop their land.

Amazingly this is a big problem that is worth solving. Many countries in Africa don’t have a developed address system with named roads and for the purpose of mail will either use a pin-drop (which can go wrong when described over the phone) or will just write a description (third house down the alley next to the pharmacy) which is very hard to sort and deliver.

An example of a country with this issue is Kenya.

I don’t see Kenyan or any other African nation language for that matter in their supported languages list.

As other people noted it is hard to compete with universality of lat/Lon pair.

Swahili, which they do support, is the national language of Kenya and a lingua franca in the region. They also have Amharic (Ethiopia), Xhosa and Zulu (South Africa).

I agree that supporting a finite set of languages isn't accessible enough, though.

"Kenyan" is not a language. I see Swahili in the list of languages, which along with English is one of the lingua franca of Kenya.

> As other people noted it is hard to compete with universality of lat/Lon pair.

In order to get sufficient accuracy, you need to state lat/long to 6 decimal points, meaning the full number is c16 numbers long. It’s certainly not particularly user friendly.

I’m also not entirely sure what is meant by universality - it’s certainly not commonly used (who knows their own lat/long off by heart?) or commonly used for the location of houses or addresses in most of the world (try sending mail by writing a lat/long on it and popping it through the mail). In terms of things that compete with the ‘universality’ of lat/long - the main thing is address/postcode (although it depends on the use case). You can write my address on a postcard and put it in any post box and it will get to my house - that’s the real universal standard.

Are people who can't afford to name their roads really going to pay a premium for a slight usability improvement over plain GPS coordinates?

Apparently yes - See Djibouti-post.

Lat/Long's are actually pretty horrible to work with from a post/logistics perspective. There is a reason why nowhere in the world actually writes the lat/long on their mail!

What’s bizarre to me is this company is funded by IKEA, including $20 million this past March.

I'm a little surprised the locations aren't something like Poäng Ektorp Fintorp.

Those last two are actually Swedish place names already.

Are actual place names excluded then from W3W? Or can they be used for a different places three-word combination? The latter would be fun.

"They've raised $39 million dollars in funding"

Who's funding them?

A boycott may be in order.

Sony, Intel Capital, and Daimler, among others. I doubt any founders out there would decline funding from VCs on account of them having funded W3W though.


Ha, Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes Benz?

Although W3W is a scumbag company, telling my car to set destination to some.three.words would be neat. And since it's a Mercedes it should drive me there.

I can't imagine how What3Words is actually useful. According to [1], 5 decimal places in Lat/Lon coordinates gets you 1.11 meter accuracy at the equator (more accurate than the 3m w3w claims). If you're in a densely populated area, your cell phone would provide the location in most circumstances. If you're really lost 100 meters, or 3 decimal places is likely all you need. That's twice as many words (three before the decimal, and three after). But I'm sure if you break it down into syllables, Lat/Lon coordinates will likely win or at least be enough every time.

Once you factor in the ambiguity of what words are being spoken, words you don't know how to pronounce, and language barriers, I can't imagine a use for W3W. To use an example from the article, "circle.goal.leaders" is six syllables and could easily be interpreted as "circle.go.leaders". Of course, if you count the dots or pauses, lat/lon wins pretty much every time. And even a lot of Americans can count to 10 in multiple languages.

[1] http://wiki.gis.com/wiki/index.php/Decimal_degrees

You seem to be forgetting that lat/long is two numbers, not just one. "Seventy six point three five two comma minus one fifty three point nine oh one" is definitely harder to work with than "circle goal leaders". Especially as you don't need to say "dot".

(I do agree that the What3Words approach is flawed, both technically and commercially.)

Unless the person reading the words to you over the phone has a strong japanese accent, and in addition to not being sure if they're saying 'go' or 'goal', you'll also have a hard time knowing if they're saying 'leaders' or 'readers'.

I can't imagine a channel of communication that's clear enough for W3W, but not clear enough for some numbers.

>You seem to be forgetting that lat/long is two numbers, not just one

Good point, mea cupla. Though I think my point that confusion over pronunciation still trumps how many numbers you have to say.

There's also the "Plus codes" by Google, which I understand are fully free to implement.


What on Earth is what3words' business model? Did they expect to own the concept of using words as coordinates?

As I understand it they're aggressively marketing and lobbying to become the standard mapping system in underdeveloped countries without a strong addressing system.

Once they've achieved this (either informally or by getting enshrined in the legal system) they can start squeezing local businesses and the government for access to their service. It's pure rent seeking.

As part of this strategy, it's in their interest to create an unnecessarily unintuitive service so you can't go anywhere without using their app. The three words provide absolutely zero geographic information about the location.

They're about as close to a truly evil company as I can think of. Luckily they seem to have had minimal success so far, as the revenue numbers are awful.

It feels like it doesn't really solve a lot of "address" problems.

Addresses typically correspond to a single building or subdivided unit. Your home/apartment/factory could overlap several GPS grid squares, and then people have to decide which one is canonical or record all of them.

In most places, addresses are roughly sequential. This gives you the ability to reason relatively: If I just walked past stores numbered 2503 and 2505, and I'm looking for 2751, how far away am I and am I going in the right direction? Easy to estimate. If I'm looking for manatee.fracas.bologna and I'm at porkpie.hamster.obnoxious, I can't make a conclusion.

Sequential addresses also make sorting and routing easier. Group the items by street name, then sort by number. No technology required, and easy to monitor and fix if it gets upset. Shuffle a few envelopes in a W3W mailbag, and it's going to be a lot harder to get it back in order.

Think of the 3 words like a phone number. They could try to sell access to the only phone book that exists. Requires some kind of critical mass, but I've heard of worse business plans.

They could also probably sell novelty "phone numbers", like every professional sports team buys the equivalent of "boston red sox" for the location of their stadium.

No clue what their actual business model is, I'm just spitballing.

Sounds an awful lot like they're trying to inject themselves as a rent-seeking middle-man.

They did have the novelty addresses in an early iteration (called “OneWord”) but have since dropped it.

I just found out that yes, they in fact have that as a patent.

Damn. I wonder if the concept of mapping phone numbers to words is still up for grabs. I'd love to see the look on Oscar Mayer's face when they realize they need to pay me royalties for 1-800-HOT-DOGS

Copyright infringement aside, naming the project "WhatFreeWords" seems to teeter very close to trademark infringement. The legal term if I recall is "deceptively similar" which the OSS project arguably is.

Using 'Free' could also be a nod to the fact that there are a lot of very similar sounding words in the What3Words system [1].

The What3Words word list is 40,000 words long. It is important that words in this list cannot be confused, otherwise they may be communicated incorrectly. For example band/banned, bare/bear, beat/beet are easily confused.

A quick inspection of their word list finds the following words that sound very, very similar to one another:

  equivalence   equivalents
  incidence     incidents
  incite        insight
  incompetence  incompetents
  independence  independents
  innocence     innocents
  instance      instants
  intense       intents
  lightening    lightning
  ordinance     ordnance
[1] https://cybergibbons.com/security-2/why-what3words-is-not-su...

> incompetence incompetents

Ironic ionic ;-)

IIRC it’s designed so that similar sounding words are so far apart from each other that it’s clear that you’ve got something wrong. Meaning the w3w addresses are meant to be used with a vague idea of where you want to go.

There are far too many word “collisions” that result in nearby (but not close enough to find someone) locations.




From their FAQs[1]:

> The overwhelming proportion of similar-sounding 3 word combinations will be so far apart that an error is obvious,

However, it continues like this:

> but there will still be cases where potentially confusable word combinations are nearby. Our Autosuggest feature actively intercepts possible errors or confusions and highlights other possibilities to the user, helping to identify what might need to be checked.

So they rely on auto-suggest and people trying all suggested alternatives.

[1] https://support.what3words.com/en/articles/3577589-how-are-t...

The name is a clear satire/parody, they would be fine at least under US law.

Parody is a defense you can raise, but it's tricky to win. [1] And even if you do win, you've got to pay your lawyers who made the arguments for you.

If I were arguing for W3W, I would point out that in some dialects of British English (where W3W is based), "what three words" and "what free words" would be pronounced identically. This means that in verbal communication, it would be very difficult to tell the two apart. That would make it harder to win a parody case, since in spoken language people wouldn't even be able to tell that you were saying something different.

1: https://www.lottfischer.com/blog/trademark-parody/

If you only used profanity, celebrity names, only had locations in North Korea, or something absurd, I'd agree. If you're marketing an equivalent product, nope.

Neither satire nor parody are fully immunized under US trademark law, and it doesn’t seem obviously outside the scope of what could be problematic from either an infringement or dilution liability standpoint notwithstanding parody.


I am not sure that is the case. You definitely have an argument if this was only done in satire but when you are also truly offering a competing product while using a similar name it is hard to argue that it is just parody.

There was a comedian who successfully opened a coffee shop in the US named "Dumb Starbucks", logo and all. Every menu item was copied verbatim from the actual Starbucks menu but with the word "Dumb" added as a prefix.

Despite a massive social media campaign that would have certainly caught the eye of Starbucks, they received no legal threats.


This was done by an established comedian, made no profit, and immediately closed.

likelihood of confusion

The Streisand effect strikes again!

If you can no longer innovate, litigate!

> *The Streisand Effect* strikes again!

Oh, those are the 3 words, apparently.

What a loser move. I will never use What3Words again. Hope they get bankrupt.

This company and has been a legal bully for quite some time just read the OpenSreetMap Article on it.


It's been a known thing about this company for a while.

There are better and open geo-hashes out there. Just look the wikipedia article on geo hashes https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geohash

This OSM article seems to sum everything up quite well - I'd encourage others to read it.

You mean you've actually used them before?

Kinda tried. Might give a chance to its OSS alternative just to support the competitor.

As usual, the Techcrunch website is cancer and redirects via "advertising.com" which means uBlock Origin users can't see it.

Happily, you can read the article (without ads) via https://www.printfriendly.com

With default-deny { scripts, cookies, fonts }, this is genuinely one of the friendliest webpages I've read this week. I don't know whether this outcome was an intended graceful-degradation behavior, or just an accident, but it's perfect.

All I get is (compressed, transferred network bytes): 68 kB of HTML, in two files; 63 kB of CSS, in one file; two webp images totaling 628 kB; and two small favicons (one of which downloads twice due to a misconfiguration, which wasted an extra 3.33 kB but whatever). It's exactly what I want from an internet news article: it's perfect! It loads instantly, and has a flawlessly readable, distraction-free formatting. It's like the apotheosis of newsprint, elevated to the shimmering silicon screen.

I read there's an obnoxious javascript page redirect in one of the scripts. When you block 1st + 3rd party scripts both, most of that class of annoyance goes away. IMHO it's a very reasonable default for many sites.

Thank you so very much, @gorhill (uMatrix / uBlock Origin). You've saved the internet in my eyes.

I have uBlock Origin installed, and can seem to read the article just fine. Nothing from advertising.com is popping up in the asset list.

You're right; it was uMatrix. Still crap though.

I think u block origin displays the blocked urls without the intermediary like advertising.com which you can copy and paste directly in the browser

Just temporarily disable strict blocking for advertising.com.


I am fairly sure that people with cancer would agree that cancer sucks.

I suspect people with cancer have bigger and more real-life issues to worry about than other people's word choices.

So you say because they have cancer they do not care about anything else? No loved ones?

No, I say that facing such a serious life-threatening situation puts things in perspective and you stop worrying about things that don't really matter.

Thanks, then it looks like these people are different than I am, when others sloppily use my illness than I get angry. Will need to ask some cancer survivors amongst my friends.

“pronouncible gps coordinates” is a great idea, but hardly seems like the kind of thing you can claim to own, barring specific implementation

What3Words is only a business due to the stupidity of the US patent system, in which, apparently, you can claim to own anything.

Here is my take on converting coordinates into 3 words: https://freews.org/location-to-w3w and the reverse: https://freews.org/w3w-to-location

This is based on Python code I found on a previous post about What3Words: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21196402

But why 3 words? Why not 4?

Here is crazy idea: take the standard long/lat system and trim it down to numbers that can point to any 20m2 square in the world. Now translate each number to two words.

Now you have a much simpler 4-word system that can be translated back to the standard system. Furthermore, since you use 4 identifiers instead of 3 you may be able to exclude many similar sounding words.

Now, is this covered by their patent?

Isn't this just the thing a patent would solve? Does What3Words have a patent on their grid system or not?

Updated: They have an active US patent. Why didn't they try gunning him down with this instead of the IP letter?


I suspect because it’s a lot easier to send a DMCA takedown notice of questionable legitimacy than to litigate patent infringement.

If someone made a version while avoiding the specific implementation would they be alright? I think that where the author messed up is by reproducing the algorithm altogether. The original article highlighted deficiencies in the implementation. Maybe it would have been better to fix those issues with a better, unrelated algorithm and release that for free.

I can't wait until someone gets a patent on quick sort.

I have a feeling this kind of legal attack is usually the result of someone misusing a company trademark.

If he called it anything else they would never have noticed or cared.

They risk drawing attention to their non-existent competition by raising this legal action if they don't have a "sure" chance of winning.

In that case they could just send a trademark complaint about the name. This wide-reaching letter is guaranteed to make people mad.

Some more background on the dispute between what3words and whatfreewords


Since a lot of people criticize their design, and obviously we all hate their business/legal practices, can we all just develop an alternative that is not patent-encumbered, give it a permissible license, and release it? That would put a knot in W3W's britches.

Aside: Is there a way to crowd-source [non-monetary] efforts like this? I don't want to get paid for it, I just want to put it out there for free and get some help.

Why are these guys throwing money after what appears to be the Juicero of geospatial indexing schemes? As others have pointed out, their word list is huge, multiple stems are included, there's no hierarchical relationship between words and so on. The whole thing seems like a bad design interview question where you start by explaining S2 to the candidate.

There's already popular open alternative that is arguably better: Googles Plus Codes [1].

1 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Location_Code

Another address: https://maps.google.com/pluscodes/

It's a nice system indeed, and fully open. It would be nice if it was implemented in most apps, not just Google Maps.

Can't someone publish the w3w lookup tables on a blockchain and then anyone could use some generic blockchain > REST API converter to access the lookups for free? Would completely destroy w3w's ~business~ extortion model.

Does anybody have a link to the open source alternative? I'd like to dust off my old Twitter account and tweet it.

Mapping numbers to words from lists has been used for a while. I first saw it in S/KEY in the mid-'90s, maybe it was elsewhere before (phone numbers?), and have seen it numerous other places since then (including XKCD's bit on easy-to-remember passwords).

It doesn't seem great for a locale -- especially a developing nation -- to use a geo addressing scheme that is outright owned by some company. Especially not a scheme that appears (from this post) to be excessively proprietary.

I wonder whether it would make sense for some subset of OpenStreetMap, Google (Maps), GIS-using government orgs, UN, development NGOs, etc., to agree on a free open standard for number-to-word lists for geographic locations.

And maybe provide free-as-in-beer (preferably FLOSS) technology implementations in support of those open standards.

Some of those organizations might also have relevant "shield" patents that might come in handy.

This could be a good thing.



Large enough orgs, and development NGOs, just use coordinates and maps. Like they always did. Because even a service like W3W needs to know that a place exists in order to name it. Once someone knows the place exists, and where, you can just put it on a map. Problem solved.

Regarding general addresses, Ireland has no ZIP codes (at least until 2017, last time I had to worry about that). Their postal service works just fine.

I was thinking that some of these orgs could collaborate on an open standard that serves the same purposes served by What3Words, for the people for whom it serves those purposes. But with an open standard that doesn't sound overly proprietary.

Interesting idea. Dividing England into 3m^2 blocks requires about 34 bits of address space. But, then again, given the propensity of surveillance, just say "hey, this is <your name here> coming home from work" -- should be enough clues to let Big Brother figure it out. CCTV is your friend.

Barbra Streizand? Is that you?

I've made an NFT project closely related to What3words - I've been giving away a few to friends for free but exactly ZERO people have actually bought one so far!


You're surprised no one has bought something that is imaginary and has zero value?

At least the delusion is very real here.

It's seems like it's roughly the equivalent of paying to name a star. Only there's at least a real star out there. Also this statement is kind of weird:

If you've been involved with the NFT community you will know that NFTs are not about money. They are about love.

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