Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Tim Berners-Lee Takes the Stand to Keep the Web Free (wired.com)
140 points by charlie_joslin on Feb 8, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 22 comments



What we really need is to find a way to stop patents from being granted for the implications of a technology. Connecting computers together into a network is hard, figuring out that once they are connected together, they might interact with each other is not. It is novel in that they couldn't interact that way before, and now they can, but that novel behavior isn't an invention its merely an implication enabled by the real work of doing the connecting. Its like patenting the idea of driving your car to Grandma's.

Letting trolls steal the implications from the inventors (and from society at large) with noting more inventive than little bits of paper with use cases on them is almost a crime against future humanity.

Of course the web is interactive, that's why the real inventors made the damn thing in the first place.


> It is novel in that they couldn't interact that way before, and now they can, but that novel behavior isn't an invention its merely an implication enabled by the real work of doing the connecting. Its like patenting the idea of driving your car to Grandma's.

I'd say the proper term for it is 'discovery'.

Connecting computers together in a network and creating the infrastructure (ethernet, routers, DNS servers, stuff like that) is all actual invention. If someone creates an ethernet that is 200x better than what we currently have, or a much better way of routing packets etc, they should get credit for that invention and be able to patent it.

Once you have the physical infrastructure, anything else that you do with it is just discovering a neat property of a system which has already been created.

It is like patenting gravity, the Pythagorean theorem, or a certain chord progression. (Imagine if someone had patented IV-V-I, we wouldn't have had nearly 60 years worth of music!)

In this way, I would say that Berners-Lee didn't invent the web, he discovered an extremely interesting and useful property of combining computer networks and hypertext.


Inventing hard things is worth patenting. Discovering emergent phenomena is not.


If it's so hard, do you really need a monopoly enforced by statute? The harder it is, the more natural temporary monopoly you get until others start copying you.

I say, nothing is worth infringing upon a creator's right to create. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Even if there are some cases where a patent might have been beneficial overall, you still have to weigh the benefits against the costs of having a patent system at all. How much GDP is spent on patents in general?


Inventing hard things is hard, but copying other people's inventions is significantly easier. Don't forget, part of the point of the patent system is to encourage inventors to publicly document how their invention works so other people can use it (with licensing), instead of keeping it secret and possibly having the knowledge lost over time.

It seems to me that if someone can describe superficially what an invention does and you can build it on the spot, then it probably doesn't deserve a patent. For example, if you were to describe the appearance of an engine block to me, I wouldn't be able to replicate the combustion engine, and it's probably worth patenting. But if you tell me that the user clicks on one button to purchase an item without going through a checkout phase, I can easily replicate that without any knowledge of how it works. Although come to think of it, that basically negates all business method patents.


Inventing hard things is hard, but copying other people's inventions is significantly easier

Copying is only easier if you can reverse-engineer what they did. Sometimes, just seeing the invention brought to fruition provides enough clues for any skilled tradesman to reproduce the parts that are unrevealed. Well if that's true, then the patent should not have been granted in the first place, like you said! Remember, ideas by themselves aren't supposed to be patentable, only implementations of ideas. You see, the patent doesn't become violated just by writing or communicating about it. The violation occurs when you build something that really starts doing what the patents describes. The problem with software patents are precisely how fuzzy this distinction can become.

Software is special precisely because it is so general and flexible. Take the 'one-click' patent that you cited above. Suppose web browsers were built with macros so that you could script them to automatically verify shipping address and payment info upon clicking "buy" and confirm the order. To the end-user, this would be functionally equivalent to the "one-click". Should this macro behavior be blocked? What if an e-commerce site distributes a script for implementing one-click functionality that can be installed by customers? Would this violate the patent? I'm not sure.


Copying is only easier if you can reverse-engineer what they did.

Sure, you can't always copy something just by inspecting it. For example, if I invent a way to laminate baseball cards extremely well, you're not going to be able to inspect the laminated card and figure out how I did it, all you're going to see is that it's a really great lamination. And this is where the other aspect of patenting comes into play. If I never tell anyone how I did it, and I die, then my invention is lost. But if I patent it, then I've publicly documented for the world what my invention is, and anyone that wants to use it can license it from me (and, eventually, it will pass into public domain). So basically, the patent system works quite well for physical products or processes.

But, as you say, when you're talking about software patents (or really, business method patents in general), everything becomes really fuzzy. What's the difference between a business method and an idea? Why is one patentable and the other isn't? The more I think about this sort of thing, the more I'm convinced that all software patents should be invalid, period. If I write an instruction manual, I can't patent that. Copyright is what covers me there. So if I write instructions for the computer (i.e. software), why is that suddenly patentable? The fact that all software patents need to describe a computer executing the operations (which is what turns it from an idea into a patentable process) just shows how absurd the whole idea is.


Just look at the results of patent. Large companies with money copy, despite of patents. Thats why all smartphones look the same and do the same. If its about Samsung against Apple, there will be endless lawsuits. If its Samsung against you, Samsung will go on using your patent and there is not much you can do against it. This is an old argument: patents protect large companies. It is still true.

Just imagine where the internet would be now, if every website developer had to face lawsuits from various ingenuous inventors, who happened to use his two lines of code before him. It would only be manageable to develop internet code by Google and Facebook, with enough lawyers in their backoffice.


> Although come to think of it, that basically negates all business method patents.

You said that like that's a bad thing...


The only point of the patent system "is to encourage inventors to publicly document how their invention works so other people can use it (with licensing), instead of keeping it secret and possibly having the knowledge lost over time."


Is this some documented "official" purpose of a patent?

Either way, I have a hard time believing that this is a bigger problem than managing a patent system per se.

Also, there are probably much better ways to protect secrets systematically for the benefit of both inventors and the public.

More plausible is the potential benefit of being able to broadcast an invention and attract investors without having to give up a first-to-move advantage. Elisha Gray might suggest otherwise.


Tim Berners-Lee's view of patents doesn't really seem to matter here (and it's surprising to me that the court/lawyers would entertain that as being important). What does matter is prior art, first-to-invent, novelty, uniqueness, and non-obviousness; all of which the Eolas patents seem to be lacking.

Long live the open web; it belongs to all of us.


It's a question of whether the jury should trust his testimony. The lawyer wanted to show that Tim Berners-Lee was biased against patents, in general, and therefore his testimony on this matter is suspect.


But what difference would his personal beliefs on software patents make toward his credibility in this matter? Whether the patents are valid or not is a matter of fact, as it would have to be in order for the patent and trade office to issue the patents in the first place. What are you supposed to conclude by knowing that TBL is against software patents? That he's lying about what happened at CERN and Pei Wei's browser? This looked like a smear campaign and I'm surprised the defendant's lawyers didn't object to it (maybe they did but I didn't read it in the article).

On an unrelated note, scientists often don't do well in debate type situations like a courtroom because scientists are often more concerned about truth then winning an argument. Thus, they'll often concede a small point from the opposing argument that is trumped up as a major victory by the opposition. The point may have little impact toward the truth of the matter but is perceived as important by an ignorant audience because the opposition is touting it as such.


Biased against American patents, no less. He's probably a dirty Socialist to boot.

I wonder whether the writer was dramatizing things a bit. I would have expected TBL to have been better prepared by the defendants' lawyers.


What if the eolas patent didn't lack this? What if it really was the first one to submit a $400 patent application in which it describes how things will work in a "browser", some technology that will support those things only a few years from now? Under current patent law, merely submitting a patent application lets you prevent anyone from actually implementing this for 20 years.

In 2005, if I knew that touchscreens would get small enough to work on iPhones, could I spend $4k for 10 patents just to cover all kinds of things you can do with touchscreens on mobile phones? I would have a component there labeled "touchscreen", even though such a thing didn't exist yet. Then, when they finally got small enough and phones got produced, I could use this patent to charge apple and other companies any amount I wanted for the license, through the doctrine of equivalents

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctrine_of_equivalents


Its nice to see successful tech companies actually fighting some patents. It makes me sad to see Apple Microsoft IBM etc just pay patent trolls because it is cheaper to do so than defeating the patents.


It's not only that it might be cheaper, it's because it takes out the uncertainty that would be involved in trying to defeat a patent. You have no idea how long the fight will take to wind it's way through the courts or even if you'll ultimately get a ruling in your favor.


Which is why the legal system is an utter failure.

Patent trolls play the probability game which usually results in a net gain because the legal system is failing.

I would say that there should be laws against this but that will result in another loophole or way of making money.

Perhaps I'm a socialist wierdo, but I'd favour scrapping the entire patent process for something which rewards positive contributions to society as a whole rather than who can screw who first. People should be creating things that improve the human condition, not enslave it.


Actually, I wonder about a more extreme scenario.

Suppose Eolas' patents are upheld. And Eolas sues all the large websites for an INJUNCTION to PREVENT them from using "interactive elements". Suppose they don't want to license it. Or if they do, they demand $10 BILLION DOLLARS from each company.

What can anyone do about it at that point? Patent law in the US does not have a compulsory licensing provision.

If the eolas patent gets upheld, this could very well have extreme effects for several years on the whole world.


Do you not remember the absurd scenario about 5 years about with click-to-activate Active X controls. MS found a way round it, but eventually caved to licensing because it was such a mess.


Yes, but suppose it was worse, suppose it was the idea of plugins in browsers. Or something like that.

What if someone right now goes ahead and patents the idea of apps for ... self driving cars? Or the idea of them using traffic maps?




Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: