Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Yahoo, an Example of Everything that is Wrong with Intellectual Property

On Monday giant tech flop, Yahoo! decided to make good on their threat by suing Facebook for patent infringement. This isn't the first time, and will certainly not be the last time Yahoo! does this. In 2004, Yahoo! sued tech company giant, Google. Google settled the case by giving Yahoo! 2.7 million shares, which Yahoo! immediately sold. Although in 2004, Yahoo! seemed to have a legitimate case against Google, this case against Facebook is considered by most as a huge pile of shit. Yahoo! is essentially claiming that Facebook is infringing on several patents that have to do with ad placement on a web page. I'm not kidding, this is a real case, filed in a California court by Yahoo!, contending that Facebook pay them damages in the millions for placing ads on their site. The worst part is if Yahoo! wins this case, it gives them the legal precedence to go after any site that displays ads on a page. Now personally I hate web ads, so in a way I wouldn't mind seeing this case go all the way with a win on Yahoo!'s side, it would change the way sites monetize, since most of the ad revenue would likely go to pay some kind of licensing fee to Yahoo!, in effect reducing the use of ads altogether. However, another part of me thinks, “this is some retarded bullshit.”

The fact is almost anything you do in life has been done before, almost nothing is ever a completely brand new idea. In my blog post, called “Everything is a Remix,” I explore this subject by talking about the great documentary by Kirby Ferguson. You should check it out if you have the time. Since the beginning of time, new ideas were put forward that allowed the world to progress. But as time passed, less and less new ideas were put forward, and much of the ideas in place today are simply copies of original ideas with small modifications that allow the contributor to call it his or her own work. Although this technically qualifies as Intellectual Property, should you be allowed to copyright, trademark, or patent it? I think not. But let me go even further and deal specifically in the realm of software patents because this is what we are really talking about when we talk about this case against Facebook.

As someone who has programmed software, I know there are only so many ways to do something using a programming language. This is because in reality, computers only understand code in one way. So all the programming that goes into something, really turns into 1s and 0s that the central processing unit (cpu) of a computer can interpret. All programming languages work the same way, some designed to make the experience of programming easier, and some designed to make the code more optimized, but they all do the same thing once compiled, turning a higher level language that can be easily read and understood into something closer to a lower level language like assembly, something more easily understood by the computer. Because of this, almost anything you program will likely have already been programmed by someone else in the same way, even if your program does not do the same thing as another individual's program, much of the same code could be used. And if the person who programmed the code first, decided to patent the code, and they are convinced you violated that patent in your software, you could be facing a court appearance.

This kind of predatory patent litigation has led to invention of the patent troll. A patent troll is either a person or organization who only concerns themselves with owning patents for the sole purpose of litigation. This litigation of course, isn't to defend the work, but rather it's a cash-grab, a way to steal as much money from someone as possible, legally abusing the patent laws we have in place. Software patents are especially vulnerable to these kind of lawsuits because the so-called invention of this type of product may have cost very little, and the copying involved in using the idea, costs nothing. Let's be clear about what patents are supposed to be granted for. The invention of something new, useful and non-obvious, is supposed to be considered the criteria for granting a patent. The problem with software patents is software isn't an invention. Software is nothing more than the interpretation of a language. For example, if someone speaks to you in a language you've never heard but you understand what was said,  have you now invented that? It's ridiculous to claim that you somehow own the bits that a computer needs to understand the command you have given it. Yet, these software patents are granted every day to individuals and corporations for the most mundane shit. And the biggest problem besides the granting of the patents itself, is the idea that by programming some similar or maybe dissimilar action, you could be violating the law. As I've pointed out there are only so many ways to get a computer to do the thing you want it to do, so the chances are, that you are probably violating someone's code whenever you write something. Fortunately, although this takes place all the time, very few cases are actually litigated. This is because most people know when they write something that is likely to be used by a lot of people, if the code is very general, than it shouldn't be patented at all. In the early days of the Internet many new technologies emerged, and if everyone ran out and started litigating the use of these technologies, the world may very well be a different place today.

So now let's get back to Yahoo!. The patents which they contend facebook is violating mostly deal with the placement of ads as I've said, but Yahoo! has even gone a step further contending that Facebook was built upon the work that Yahoo! had put forth before. This is a seriously obnoxious contention, after all I've seen the movie The Social Network and I don't remember anyone from Yahoo! ever being there while Mark Zuckerberg was writing the code that would eventually become Facebook. So let's examine a few of the statements that Yahoo! have made on this matter.

Facebook's entire social network model, which allows users to create profiles for and connect with, among other things, persons and businesses, is based on Yahoo!'s patented social networking technology.

Were you aware that Yahoo! had a social network, I wasn't. Head on over to Yahoo! and see if you can detect this social networking they are talking about. As I remember it, Yahoo! was nothing more than a search engine for much of its life. So what I can gather from this claim, is that Yahoo! believes they own the rights to any page which displays scrolling topics, features a user database that users have to login and configure to make their own, and the ability for persons to chat with each other. Wow those are some big claims. Having been on the Internet for a long time, I can recall the old days before Google as the search empire it is today. In those days you used Altavista, and then Yahoo! to search. At no time, did Yahoo! feature a page that had any kind of social presence whatsoever, never requiring users to login to the site, or setup profiles, or give them the ability to chat with each other. Although, they do have a chat client, Yahoo! Messenger, this came much later after the invention of ICQ Messenger. In fact as I recall, they came pretty late to the game on that one.

For much of the technology upon which Facebook is based, Yahoo! got there first and was therefore granted patents by the United States Patent Office to protect those innovations. Yahoo!'s patents relate to cutting edge innovations in online products, including in messaging, news feed generation, social commenting, advertising display, preventing click fraud, and privacy controls. These innovations dramatically improve user experience, privacy, and security and enhance the ability to connect with users.

Again, big claims. If I head over to Yahoo!, I see none of the impressive technologies they claim to own.  What's worse is their claim to having gotten to the US Patent office first, which means while others were content with not claiming ownership to something so general that everyone was using it already, you assholes took the attitude, that if they are not going to claim it, we will. It doesn't take a genius to know this whole thing is bullshit, after all if Yahoo! really did invent all this, they had it first and had a site that Facebook was designed on, wouldn't it stand to reason that everyone would be Yahooing right now instead of Facebooking? Instead, the little community Yahoo! has built, distances itself from them with each passing day. And although Yahoo! would like to claim this is because Facebook has built an empire on the back of Yahoo!, its even more simple than that, Yahoo! just sucks balls. I can't remember the last time I wanted to use Yahoo! for anything at all. I mean seriously, how many people actually visit their site anymore, I can't imagine they are flocking to Yahoo! for their search engine anymore, as they don't even do the searches themselves, since Yahoo! is now using the Microsoft Bing engine to handle their searches. I think if not for the properties they have purchased over the last few years they might have already disappeared, and this really brings us to why Yahoo! is suing Facebook at all.

Right now Yahoo! is like a passenger on a sinking ship, and like anyone in that situation they are simply looking for a lifeboat. Facebook has built an empire that has positioned itself to be the most dominant social experience on the Internet now, and for the next few years, at least until a new Facebook emerges. For that reason they seem like an easy target for a desperate sinking company like Yahoo!, who is essentially on their way down. I don't know how long it will be, but if Yahoo! doesn't win this lawsuit, and I highly doubt they will, they may only have a matter of years before they become something like America Online (AOL). AOL once dominated the US in providing users with a community that has access to the Internet, but in recent years they have become nothing more than a site that provides email and chat. I expect that five years from now, we might see Yahoo! treated in much the same way.

From the perspective of Yahoo!, they might truly believe they have the right to these patents and maybe they do. After all, our government has has allowed these kinds of frivolous patents to merge themselves in with real patents causing this kind of nonsense in the first place. I've spoken at length, my disdain for copyrights, trademarks and patents, many times over. We live in a world where everyone wakes up each day hoping to have that one big idea, but not for the benefit of mankind, but for the purpose of greed. You see corporations have used and abused our Constitution over the last two hundred and twenty three years, not to advance the progress of the science and arts that benefits us all, but rather to make and hold on to vasts amounts of wealth for the benefit of themselves. This kind of greed has seeped into the mind of the commoner who is not content with just being average, living a life of modest means and helping to promote the progress of the world in which he or she lives in. Instead everyone wants to be rich, and why not, I want to be rich too. We'd all like to be rich, but the fact is that's not how it works. If everyone could be rich, then all we would have to do is print enough money to give everyone the same amount. This world doesn't work on monetary equality, because there isn't some unlimited set of funds out there. The way it works is that there is a limited amount of wealth that has to be distributed, not evenly, out to everyone. In order for one person to get rich, someone who is rich or several people who are rich, have to give up some of their wealth. This is why there is such a huge gap between the wealthiest 1% and the poorest 99%.

Our children are growing up in a vastly different world than the one that came before them. In this new world, we create things, not to better mankind, but to amass personal fortune. In this new world, less and less new ideas will emerge, stifled by the stranglehold of copyrights, trademarks, and patents all designed to protect the wealth of the greedy 1%. Only through the dismantling of our copyright, trademark and patent laws can we evolve. You need to ask yourself a question? Would you rather live in world where greedy corporations dictate the laws of the land, allow people who cannot pay to die from disease, and control the progress of science to be dictated by the costs involved. Or would you rather live in a world without borders, disease, hatred, or greed. Only through the education, promotion and progress of science can these latter things be achieved, but first we must do something radical, we must set aside the laws that allow these corporations to control ideas. Once we have achieved this, there is no idea that cannot be allowed to flourish and everyone will flourish with it. This may seem like a dream and maybe it is, but maybe without dreams brilliant ideas are not even possible.

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