[Fsfe-ie] Re: RMS Talk media files (MS compatible format?)

Glenn Strong Glenn.Strong at cs.tcd.ie
Mon May 31 15:29:25 CEST 2004

On Monday, May 31, 2004 at 13:39 +0100, Glenn Strong wrote:
> On Monday, May 31, 2004 at 13:57 +0100, Malcolm Tyrrell wrote:
> > > I've a request from somebody in ENTEMP's IP unit for a
> > > transcript of the talk.  Is there one?  Any plan to make
> > > one?
> > 
> > A transcript is a good idea. We could get it done pretty
> > quickly if we break up the task. I'll do the first fifteen
> > minutes, anyway. Anyone else?

Here are minutes 15-30. I have spell checked it, but it needs to be
proof-read. Will somebody do this? 

If nobody has done more chunks later I'll tackle another 15 or 30
minutes, but I won't have time until later today.

If you don't want to proof read it, another way you could help is to
find URL's for the points RMS makes in the talk - I've added a link to
the bottom of this transcript for Heckel's natural-order recalculation
patent, but more would be good.

I will take the fragments of the document posted here are put them on
ifso.ie as a hypertext. If there are links I'll be able to annotate it.

[15:00] It actually covered the algorithm known in computer science as
"topological sort", whose first reference in the literature was in
1963. But this patent did not mention the term spreadsheet, did not
mention the term natural order recalculation and did not mention the
term topological sort. If you had been searching for patents because
you wanted to write a spreadsheet you wouldn't have heard about this
one unless you heard from somebody who was getting sued.

However by various searching methods you'll find a lot of patents that
might restrict what you're about to write. So then what. So then
you've got to figure out what they mean. That's really hard because
patents are written in twisted legal language and the words don't mean
what you think they mean. It's very hard to understand.

The Australian Government, in the 1980s, commissioned a study on the
effects of the patent system. And this study concluded that there was
no reason whatsoever to believe patents did any good for Australia,
and said that if it were not for international pressure they would
recommend simply abolishing the system. But since there was the
international pressure they recommended making patents last a shorter
period of time, narrower in scope and harder to get. And in particular
they said that patents were completely failing at one of their main
goals which was to cause useful disclosure of ideas, because they were
so hard to read that engineers essentially never read them.

And they quoted an engineer saying "I can't recognise my own
invention". [laughter] And I've seen this too. A programmer named Paul
Heckel developed a program and then patented... got a couple of
patents related to that program, and then when he saw hypercard
released by Apple it didn't look anything like his program, so he
would never have dreamed that his patents might apply to it. But his
lawyer said that the way the patents were written, they could arguably
cover aspects of Hypercard.

So Heckel threatened Apple, and then, when that didn't get results he
started threatening some of Apple's customers. Because the users also
can get sued. And eventually he settled somehow with Apple and got
some amount of money that neither of them will tell us about. This
sort of thing is a little bit like child abuse in that people don't
like to talk about it. The victims are scared to talk.

So, once I was giving this speech in California, and Heckel was in the
audience and he jumped up and said "That's not True - I just didn't
know the scope of my protection". And I said "Yes, that's what I
said". [laughter]. If I had said "No" he probably would have had some
way to argue with me, but he sat back down and didn't open his mouth
again. [laughter]

They love to use that propaganda word "protection", as if somehow an
idea would get destroyed or become unusable if more people were
allowed to use it. Reject that propaganda word. Never allow it. Never
accept it. There's a lot of propaganda going on in this field. I'll -
I may point out to you some other propaganda words. We've got to be
vigilant against letting them into our own conversation, letting them
warp our thinking.

Another propaganda phrase is "intellectual property", which I already
partly explained. In trying to treat Copyrights and patents as if they
were one issue, whereas when software idea patents endanger software
developers and copyrights don't is completely idiotic. Their effects
are so different in practical terms that it is completely
self-defeating to treat them as if they were a single issue. And in
general anyone who talks about intellectual property is either trying
to mislead you or is mislead himself. More often the latter.

To attempt to thing about quote the issue of intellectual property
unquote ensures that only foolish alternatives will suggest themselves
to you as natural. It's a bit like trying to discuss the question of
"fluids policy". You know, fluids policy would clearly cover air,
water, milk, blood, oil, and various other things - Mercury
[laughter]. Their all fluids. We should obviously have one policy,
there's just one issue there, right?

So, you're going to have spend a lot of time talking with a lawyer
explaining what it is you're planning on doing so that the lawyer can
explain to you what the patents prohibit and what they don't, and
eventually the lawyer will give you an answer like this: "if you do
something in this area you'll most likely lose the lawsuit. If you do
something in this area you've got a considerable chance of losing, and
if you really want to be safe stay out of this area. But be aware that
there's a substantial element of chance in the outcome of any

So now that you know just what kind of business you are allowed to do
and what you're not allowed to do, how are you going to deal with
these patents? For each patent there are essentially three options you
can try: one is to avoid the patent. Second is to get a license for
the patent, and the third is to to overturn it - show it's
invalid. And each of these options based on independent factors may or
may not be possible in any one case.

So let's, first lets talk about the option of avoiding the
patent. That means don't use the idea. So for instance if you are
making a spreadsheet and you wanted to avoid the natural order
recalculation patent that means don't put natural order recalculation in
your spreadsheet. Would have been a rather lousy spreadsheet - people
wouldn't use it.

Now when another feature, another example of a patented feature, was
the feature for word processors, a feature of defining an
abbreviation so you could take any letters you want and define that
as an abbreviation, and then say what it should stand for, and then
when you type that abbreviation followed by punctuation it would
automatically replace itself by the expansion. So you could define cmt
as committee and then you could type cmt<space> and it would turn into
committee<space> or cmt<comma> and it would turn into
committee<comma>. Anyway, the word processor XYwrite had this
feature, and then they discovered somebody in the 80s had patented
it. So they tried negotiating with him to get a license but they found
out he was just impossible to negotiate with. And then they thought
about trying to sue to overturn it in court, but they decided that was
too hard - too expensive - so eventually they just took it out and
they sent all the users a downgrade in the mail[laughter] - taking out
that feature.

Now, how did I find out about this? Well, they wrote to me because it
turns out that my text editor Emacs - the thing that I first became
known for - had that exactly that feature in the 1970s. So they
thought that I might be able to provide them with evidence to help
them overturn the patent. So they had an argument they just decided it
was too troublesome a way to go. even despite having the evidence in
hand. So it's nice to know I've had at least one patentable idea in my
life[laughter]. So they decided they decided to avoid this patent. And
it wasn't too hard, i guess, not having that abbreviation feature
would be somewhat annoying to the users, but maybe they would still
have considered the program usable. But, you know, if you look at your
word processor you'll see hundreds of features, and they are all used
by people even though you don't use all of the yourself. When you
start taking out one feature after another after another eventually
you end up with a program that the users say "this is just not good
enough - this doesn't do what I want".

Sometimes what's patented is an algorithm, For instance the LZW data
compression algorithm is a good example. We avoided that patent in data
compression - we developed another data compression program which uses
a different algorithm so the people who thought "I want to compress my
file" they used our program. So we solved that problem, but the same
algorithm is used in the PostScript language. PostScript language
specifies there is an operator to do LZW compression and an operator
to do LZW uncompression. Well, we can find another algorithm but it's
useless. [25:00] 

No other algorithm produces compatible results. We can come up with
another way to do data compression, but we can't implement
PostScript. Not as it's specified.

Well, it turns up that wasn't too much of a disaster - only the
compression is patented, not the uncompression. And people don't
usually ask their printers to compress anything, they only ask the
printers to uncompress. So we sort of squeaked by, just barely, on
that one. But then the same algorithm is used in GIF files.

And the patent holder, unisys, started threatening not just software
developers but companies that had web sites with GIF files on them,
saying "can you prove all your GIF files were made with a properly
licenced program? If not we can sue you!".

Of course, people didn't take too long to develop a replacement format
called "PNG" for PNG's Not Gif [laughter], which uses the gzip compression
algorithm. which, by the way, does better data compression - makes
smaller files than LZW. and we started saying to people "stop using
GIF format - switch to PNG format". And what happened? Not
much. [laughter]

The users said "we can't use PNG format, the browsers don't display
that". And the browser developers said "well, we could implement PNG
format but no users are asking for that". What you see is the
difficulty of avoiding something that's a de-facto standard. GIF is a
de-facto standard. When a de-facto standard is patented you're in real

It's not just de-facto standards that get patented, because JPEG which
is an official standard released by a standards committee is also
perhaps covered by a US software idea patent and people are
getting sued right now. The standard committee says they don't think
the patent really covers the standard, but nothing guarantees the
court will agree. Who knows what will happen?

GIF is actually covered by two patents: both covering the LZW data
compression algorithm that was patented twice. Now, that's not
supposed to happen but it does, and the reason it happens is that the
two patents are not written in the same way. You have to look at them
and think about them carefully to see that they are both covering the
same computation. Now if they were patents on some kind of chemical
process you could say, you could have a quick way to see if you need
to think about them, because you could ask yourself "are the same
chemicals going in, are the same chemicals coming out? Hmm, if they
are the same I guess I'd better compare these". But there's nothing like
that to help you comparing these two patents on different ways of
describing the same mathematics. Fact is, you could describe the same
mathematics in ways that don't look exactly the same at first
sight. only when you think about them do you see it's the same
mathematics. And the patent office doesn't have time. I'm not going to
say that some patent examiner did this because he was stupid - the
fact is they have only 17 hours per patent application, and they don't
have time to take this application and every other application and
spend a lot of time comparing them.

This isn't the only data compression algorithm that's been patented
twice, remember that program that was killed off a week before we
released it? That algorithm got patented twice too. [29:00]

One or two patents covering a de-facto patents is actually a "lite"
version of the problem. Look at the MPEG-2 video standard. That's
covered by 39 different US software idea patents at once! The
negotiations to arrange some way that someone could license all those
patents took longer than the development of the standard itself.

And people from the committee that produced the JPEG standard were
trying to work on a new version but they say that software idea
patents make prospective standardisation essentially impossible.


Heckel: http://hci.stanford.edu/cs547/abstracts/92-92/920513-heckel.html

Glenn Strong

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