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White House Petition to End Software Patents Is a Hit (technologyreview.com)
318 points by bane on Sept 24, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 70 comments

Interesting to note that this is currently #1 with >100 points, while my link to the actual petition was flagged and is now marked dead.


According to the guidlines

"Please submit the original source. If a blog post reports on something they found on another site, submit the latter."


Maybe because yours was the third such submission?

1. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3028999

2. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3031574

Interesting the dupe detector didn't see it. Nice find.

Dupe detector apparently matches exact URLs (including query string). All three URLs differ based on various tracking bits (utm, etc). I always search first before submitting.

There is absolutely no justification for flagging this. I am disheartened that hacker news has become a place where people flag stuff they dislike rather than posting a rebuttal. I feel this is a systemic error, it is currently too easy for a few people to kill articles they don't like.

Patent advocates are outnumbered by practitioners who are virulently anti-patent by at least 100-1 on HN. Who would be flagging an article like that off in bad faith?

To the responses: the whole point of hacker news is to have a culture where upvoting is the only form of vote. If you want something to sink to the bottom the only thing you are supposed to do is not vote for it. Flagging is reserved for spam or other stuff that violates HN policies.

If that were true, then flagging would not sink things to the bottom. I click the buttons that do what I want, not ones that are supposed to do what I want.

This is why we can't have nice things.

No, the refusal to make the effort to design well allowing for this is why we don't have nice things.

I'm pretty sure pg doesn't post the criteria being marked "dead", but I thought I'd heard one time that it took ~10 flags for it to happen.

After my original post to the petition was killed, I thought I had done something wrong linking directly to the petition...as if that was some sort of spam (e.g. linking to an article about a product vs. linking to the actual product page seems to be the norm here as most direct-to-product links come off as spammy).

I'm assuming good faith about the whole thing, but think that it's an interesting gray area ripe for community discussion.

If the flagging is intentional, I agree. But it is also ridiculously easy to accidentally flag an article in a mobile browser on a touchscreen device. I have to wonder how many illegitimate flags come in that way.

I've done that at least half a dozen times on my Desire. It would be nice if the "flag" button were off to the side, away from the other links, or if there were a dialogue to confirm your flagging. Or if there were an "unflag" button.

>It would be nice if . . . there were an "unflag" button.

Uh, there is: when you click on "flag" it turns into "unflag", and when you click on that, it turn back into "flag".

Oh, it does, too. I don't know how I couldn't have noticed that. I always curse not having that whenever I fat finger "flag".

Flagging is a way to sink an item from the front page. I suspect that if there were a way of doing it without killing an item (say, have a per-user 'hide' option for each item), the flagging rampage would subside.

There's no way to downvote other than to flag. Making a rebuttal doesn't make the article go away, it does the opposite.

Inflicting an implicit form of censorship on a website to do away with threads you don't agree with is anathema to grown-up, intellectual discussion.

I'm just one of the naïve newbies speaking out here but if you don't like something, either enter the discussion with your reasons thus or ignore it and move on.

And just to prove my point, I could flag your post without thinking twice about it. But that's not in the spirit of discussion and is a negative influence.

Your reasoning only works if you nobody ever upvotes anything either — because if downvoting is anathema to rational discussion because it buries that article, upvoting must also be bad because it buries other articles. Your argument is essentially against voting in general. But HN is a voting-based site, so if you are really that strongly against non-conversational signals, it simply isn't a good match for you.

Having an article buried simply because it wasn't popular enough to stay on the front page isn't exactly analogous to going out of your way to ensure an article is buried by flagging it.

I choose to comment before I upvote anything, that's how I roll, but on that basis I can argue that the former constitutes a contribution while re-appropriating another button to serve the purpose of a downvote contributes nothing. If the former is the means to encourage discussion then the latter is the means to discourage it.

No, they're both means to encourage discussion on the topics you'd like to see it on. The front-page is a zero-sum game. When you upvote some things but not others, you are pushing those other things down just like if you downvoted (and when you downvote, you're pushing other things up just like if you'd upvoted!). In fact, going down the page the article is on and upvoting every other story is roughly equivalent to a downvote. My sister used to employ this technique to "downvote" American Idol contestants she found particularly obnoxious.

Downvoting is precisely as valuable as upvoting. They're both ways of saying that some things are more worthy of discussion than other things. The fact that 100 people like something does not make it good or even popular. 100,000 people might think it's an awful topic, or an awful presentation of the topic. If they all agreed on a single article that is better, they could upvote that, but if they just feel the article is particularly bad relative to all other articles, they have no recourse but a mass-upvote, which (besides being burdensome) means they then can't upvote any articles they find especially useful.

To illustrate what I'm saying: If we all agreed never to bury an article that somebody voted for, 100 NASCAR fans (an insignificant number both as a percentage of HN users and a percentage of NASCAR fans) could completely transform HN into a NASCAR fansite by bloc-upvoting articles relevant to their interests. That would be a horrible outcome.

An article about Jimmie Johnson is less appropriate to HN than all the other articles on the front page right now, and the way people register that opinion is by flagging.

Please do not do this. You are not entitled to inflict your negative opinion of something on everyone else.

That's the point. Just because you don't like something doesn't mean it isn't worthy of discussion. Only flag something if it violates an HN policy.

I flag something if I don't want to see it on HN. I don't care strictly what HN policy says or not. I want to influence HN and HN policy. I don't want to play pedantic games with written language. Language is a fuzzy echo of intent. I care about intent.

It's a fairly selfish view to distort a feature designed for abuse into a feature for your personal preference. Thought processes like that lead to the collapse of great communities.

If you want to influence HN, you should submit and upvote stories you prefer like the site was designed for.

I agree with the other people who replied to you, this was completely uncalled for.

Whoever flagged the post probably should have their HN account nuked.

Actually I think direct links to petitions shouldn't be allowed (much like posts with subjects like "Vote Up If You Like Cookies").

Links should exist for the benefit of the reader, not the benefit of the submitter.

A direct link to a petition does not require or imply that the reader has taken some action because they endorse the subject matter. It's perfectly reasonable to click on a petition, read it, and refuse to sign it. I don't see a problem.


I can actually see your point on this. This is a weird gray area in the guidelines I think.

The only thing less useful than an internet petition is... actually I can't finish that sentence because I can't think of anything less useful than an internet petition.

But I'm sure the White House had a fun time harvesting all those email addresses to spam throughout the coming fourteen months of election season!

Why do you think that is going to happen? Their privacy policy doesn't seem to allow email addresses to be used for that purpose. I do not think the Obama campaign could take this lightly, and not only because of the privacy policy. Use of government resources for an election campaing is another issue, one more than just privacy activists care about.

I'm not sure about email addresses, but political parties often have exemptions in lots of laws about privacy, fundraising, etc; for reasons which are obvious.

"I do not think the Obama campaign could take this lightly"

Taking what people think lightly is a skill practiced by all politicians. They are very good at it.

Why do you think that is going to happen?

Because harvesting email addresses is pretty much the ultimate purpose of all online petitions.

Their privacy policy doesn't seem to allow email addresses to be used for that purpose

Which part excludes it?

Use of government resources for an election campaing is another issue, one more than just privacy activists care about.

In a world where the President can take Air Force One to go to a campaign fundraiser, I don't think that this is taken all that seriously any more. There are certain rules regarding what's "politics" and what's "government", but if the White House has your email address you're certainly gonna be getting a lot of emails going "Gosh, what a good job I'm doing as President. What a pity those darn Republicans are to blame for everything that's going wrong" et cetera.

>Because harvesting email addresses is pretty much the ultimate purpose of all online petitions.

Says who? I've been registered on more than one petition websites for years using an email just for them ([name-of-site]@mydomain.com) and I haven't ever got a spam email.

In a world where the President can take Air Force One to go to a campaign fundraiser, I don't think that this is taken all that seriously any more. There are certain rules regarding what's "politics" and what's "government", but if the White House has your email address you're certainly gonna be getting a lot of emails going "Gosh, what a good job I'm doing as President. What a pity those darn Republicans are to blame for everything that's going wrong" et cetera.

Do you have an evidence of this ever happening, or are you just defaming?

You may have seen something about the Air Mag auction over the last few weeks. (Nike's limited edition run of the sneakers Marty McFly wore in Back to the Future 2.) When the auction popped up in the news I ended up on Nike's promotional site and read that the idea was born when "...in 2005, [the shoe designer]’s attention was caught by an online petition asking that the shoes come back." (http://www.back4thefuture.com/#!shoe)

It struck me as the first time I'd ever heard of an online petition achieving its goal.

Here's hoping this becomes second time.

Here in Germany an internet petition helped raising awareness for a problem (internet censorship via DNS-Spoofing) that did not have enough attention before. I think it was very useful in doing that. https://epetitionen.bundestag.de/index.php?action=petition;s...

I agree. The UK government has had an online petition system for a number of years, and I am not aware of a single policy that has changed because of it.

> The only thing less useful than an internet petition is... actually I can't finish that sentence because I can't think of anything less useful than an internet petition.

Oh! I know the answer to that one!

The only thing less useful? An online political statement that doesn't actually accomplish anything!

And my opinion has nothing to do with the White House. In fact, it stems from my only time petitioning my congressional representative. I begged him for no form letters and no additions to any email lists -- and a I got a form letter and put on an email list.

Now I get emails every month or two telling me what an awesome guy he is.

I wonder i somebody took a time to really read what the petition says. The title is anti-sofware patents but the body is more complicated: "The patent office's original interpretation of software as language and therefor patentable is much closer to reality and more productive for innovation than it's current practice of issuing software patents with no understanding of the patents being issued".

I think it should read: "The patent office's original interpretation of software as language and therefor not patentable is much closer to reality and more productive for innovation than it's current practice of issuing software patents with no understanding of the patents being issued."

Or am I missing something?

Exactly. I didn't sign it because I read the text, had no clue what it meant, so I refused to sign, despite the name. And I wrote patents and experienced firsthand the fun of patent litigation.

My position is closer to Jonathan Abrams' tweet: tell the USPTO to stop issuing obvious patents, no matter what form.

I wonder if the creator of the petition even noticed the mistake, or he can't edit it anymore. Would that be a real problem giving the title and some of the body are clearly anti-software patents?

Yes, the creator posted in another thread that that they wont let him edit it. He also said it was accidentally sent prematurely before a good proof-read, due to the system not being intuitive to him at the moment.

For me the problem is that there is frequently "no understanding of the patents being issued". Aside from that, if you are attempting to patent an idea or process I don't see why software should be treated differently than hardware.

Because software can already be copyrighted.

Surely software copyright prevents reusing of the same source code, but not a different implementation of the same algorithm?

Yes, and that's how it should be. Mathematics, including algorithms, is not patentable.

Why shouldn't they be patentable. If your company spends money and time comig up with a novel way to sort or search or compress information, why should you not be afforded the same protections as a company that came up with a novel way to store energy, or convert energy?

The "time and money" argument (financial incentive to innovate) is as old as it is irrelevant. Frankly, I don't care if you can't make money off the monopoly rents of an abstract concept (and I'm offended that you think I should). What I care about is you thinking you are entitled to halt progress for your own selfish goals.

Besides, it's fallacious to imply that people need "incentives" to innovate. I'd wager there are much more people who are hindered by the patent system than there are people who would stop innovating just because there's no more monopoly to be had by being the first to apply for some legalese nonsense.

It's utterly absurd to imply any sort of ownership or rights to an abstract concept. The very notion of it should be grounds for attesting insanity. Instead, we should focus on free flow and exchange of ideas, tight cooperation and incremental development off each others' discoveries.

So no, they shouldn't be patentable. Nothing should be.

So you disapprove of any type of ownership over an idea. I understand that on a certain level. I suppose first to market would be the only commercial advantage to an invention then. That's not so bad but on a ten year expense to invent you arent getting much return if your idea can be replicated in a one month copycat product. Then again....it seems you are also not fond of personal gain or reward for one's efforts. That I can't really relate to. I don't think that everything I invent should be for the progress of all mankind.

No that is generally how the whitehouse miss-writes laws issued..just wait for the over-correction being worse than the original

It's a shame that the petition that gained traction was so poorly written to the point of not being understandable.

Yep. That pretty much assures it's a dead letter.

If there arent any software patents would we see new competetion to the big giants of industry. A competetor to Google for example? (no, bing doesnt count) Seems to me that the entire reason that the internet has been so successful and innovative is that there (was) little litigious battles and it was just smart people solving problems. I'd be in favor of eliminating the anti-competetive behavior of patents.

This is a liitle offtopic, but I have a simply question, one that I've had for awhile but cannot find the answer to, can anyone give an example of a legitimate software patent -- a patent that beyond its superficial veneer doesn't seem utterly absurd.

A sophisticated algorithm for drug design.

A sophisticated algorithm for simulating turbulent flow near jet engines.

A sophisticated algorithm for optimizing [some complicated industrial process].

If you want a specific example, this is just what I got from a google patent search for "rational drug design", but: http://www.google.com/patents?id=3b8kAAAAEBAJ&zoom=4&...

I was under the impression that algorithms are specifically not patentable


Applications of algorithms are patentable, not the algorithms themselves. (un-cited e.g. using machine learning for handwriting recognition)

> e.g. using machine learning for handwriting recognition

This is one of the problems with software patents. Using machine learning for handwriting recognition is a pretty obvious "innovation" to anyone with a little background in AI who has thought about the problem at all. If we allow people to patent "using machine learning for X" for all activities X, that blocks a lot of innovation. The field is moving so fast right now that people are thinking of new ideas all the time; we don't need patents to encourage that.

There are some non-obvious algorithms that are worthy of patenting (that is, if algorithms were actually patentable). One that comes to mind is the fast inverse square root algorithm (https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Fast_inverse_...). In our field, trade secret (e.g. compiled source code) is usually sufficient to provide protection against a competitor stealing a novel algorithm, rendering patents largely unnecessary.

So the economic idea behind a patent is to prevent a free-rider problem. Say I spend years and tons of my money inventing the telephone. I finally make it work, then sell it on the market. Without the patent system, someone can buy my product, reverse engineer it, and release a knock-off at a vastly lower price than me because he doesn't have to recoup all of my R&D investment. If this happens all the time, then we have a market failure, where nobody has an incentive to engage in research-intensive invention where the end result can be easily copied.

This is really the only economically sensible basis for patent law. Unfortunately it tends to get clouded in lots of other fuzzy ideas, like protecting ideas and incentivizing innovation.

So to give an example of something I think is a legitimate software patent: consider a hypothetical solution to the hidden node problem in the context of white space devices and wireless microphones: http://www.shure.com/idc/groups/public/@gms_gmi_web/document...

Basically, say you have a transmitter T and a receiver R, and a whitespace device W. W listens to the spectrum and opportunistically uses whatever radio channels it hears as free. T transmits on a fixed frequency to R, and R receives without transmitting. There are situations where because of geography, R can hear T, but W cannot hear T. So W detects T/R's frequency as free, tries to use it, and interferes with R. This is the problem that Microsoft's white space devices ran into with unlicensed wireless microphones in the FCC tests.

What algorithms could you put in a whitespace device (or a network of whitespace devices) to alleviate this problem? This is not really something that a programmer of average competence would find obvious. Indeed, so far nobody has a good solution to the problem, despite quite a bit of research. However, when somebody does come up with a good algorithm, it will be fairly easy for other manufacturers to copy it. Even if it's not, unless it can be protected by a patent, whoever discovers it will have a huge incentive to keep it secret, which means people can't work on improving it.

I think this is a pretty good case for allowing patenting of the algorithm within the specific context of a whitespace device (which is basically what the current law is supposed to be). You have a situation where solving a problem requires quite a bit of investment. You can't really do research on this without buying a bunch of whitespace devices and wireless mics and doing a bunch of testing in different conditions). At the same time, because the end result would be easy to copy, nobody really has the incentive to work on it, especially not smaller research labs which might be able to solve the problem but certainly wouldn't have the manufacturing muscle to build and sell their own whitespace devices.

The reason so many software patents sound ridiculous is because they don't really require any innovation. They're simply an attempt to take obvious ideas and keep other people from using them. As a rough rule of thumb, for a patent to make sense, it should take way more effort to come up with the algorithm than it does to implement it. If it doesn't then there isn't really any free rider problem.

mp3 perhaps?

The headline "White House Petition to End Software Patents Is a Hit" is slightly misleading. It makes it sound like the petition came from the White House.

I thought that too at first. A better title would be "Petition for the White House to end ...".

I haven't even heard of this petition site before, it's interesting that it hasn't been overrun by 4chan scripts inflating whatever. "We petition you to make 4chan the official capital of the internet."

Here's my petition to pass the StartupVisa


Please sign it if you are so inclined

If by "hit" you mean "we still need many signatures," then OK. Just that it's the most popular petition amongst a few hundred people who have signed petitions at all does not smack of "hit material" to me.

Well, it's soared past the 5000 requirement to 6500+ at time of writing now!

You are correct. I did not clearly state that my complaint is specifically about the article as written rather than the petition itself.

The link from Technology review to the application is broken. If they fix it, the number will probably go up!

I wondered if, there were no software patents would the community be better off ? Does anyone know off a statistic were there are cases where it shows that companies that sued others and won, ended up paying more in the end for breaching someone elses patent.

Google bought Motorola recently and some say just to have security that android is used on the phones. They then used ,and still are, the patents as an leverage against rivals competitors.

I think as indiviudal company you can gain, but with these wars the eco system is weakend and in turn everyone is worse off.

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