Monthly Archives: December 2007

Patents: Some nuanced thoughts.

I wrote something about IPP(Intellectual Property Patents), a while ago(cf:Why patents suck).This post can be taken as a continuation of that post or can be taken independently.

After mulling over the general undesirability of IPP , it is time to ask what are the various reasons why people/companies patent at all. Some of the reasons are obviously evil, and some are benign and can be classified as ‘self-defense’ . Big companies and small companies patent for different reasons.

Big Companies:

1.First, the evil reason is to kill competition and have a monopoly over pricing. It is done to create an artificial exclusivity of the the product. And this in turn slows down the pace of economic evolution.

2.A not so evil reason is to protect oneself. Even if you are a big company, you are always in a danger to be sued by other big companies(and sometimes by smaller companies). So what do you do? Well, here is a small story about what big companies do in that case. Once, there was a farmer who had a dog. He wanted to sell his dog, and priced it at a whopping 20 thousand dollars. There was another farmer who needed a dog but of course did not have that kind of money to pay. So he went to the dog seller and said that he has two cats, and he plans to sell them at 10 thousand dollars each. So how about exchanging two 10K cats with one 20K dog? The farmer happily agreed and later boasted to his neighbors that he sold his dog for 20K. Well, that is precisely what big corps do. They cross license their patents. They say that if you license me with patents A and B, we will license you with our patents C and D. You scratch my balls and I will scratch your ass. Or something like that.

Small Companies:

1.The evil reason why small companies patent their product is to singularly profit from them. They are like domain-name squatters. All they do is patent and pounce on anyone who seems to be infringing their patent conditions. The thing is that these kind of companies don’t have any products, for having a product will put them at risk to be counter sued by big companies. If they have products and sue a big corp, the big corp guy will tell them- “Well, yes we infringed your patent, but let us see; in your product you infringed this, this and that patent of mine so you will end up paying us more than we would pay you. “ So, these small companies never make any product and profit by squeezing money by having patents and hiring lawyers.

2.The not so evil reason why companies patent is the same reason why departments in a research division patent stuff. Thing is that most of the ‘score card’ in the research division is centered around publishing papers and patents. The more papers and patents you have , bigger the grant in the next year plan. The same goes for companies. The more patents they have the more funding they might get from governments and other big institutions.

Now, where does all this place us in the grander scheme of things? It leaves us at a place where patents look like necessary evils, but that ‘necessity’ is artificially manufactured. It is like arms race. Killing is not desirable, but if you do not keep a gun, others might kill you. Despite that it has to be kept in mind that killing and guns are bad in themselves, and that should not mean that even as we keep guns we should not think about the elimination of the necessity of guns altogether.

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Ideas are not land grab or why patents suck.

A chain of thoughts ensued when I read the following article about Microsoft patenting the machine classification technique(ref : http://www.seobythesea.com/?p=942).I am sure that if Microsoft(MS) was there in stone age, it would have patented wheels and you would have to pay MS some big ass royalty each time you drive to work. And if MS was there in prehistoric times where we were still walking on fours, it would have patented the method of walking on two legs, and each time you walk down the grocery store you would be paying even more to MS. Practically your whole life would be centered around paying Microsoft.
The fact of the matter is that patents on Intellectual Property(IP) has to do with protectionism. People who advocate IP either haven’t seriously thought about the impact of IPP(Intellectual Property Patenting) on the general health of humanity or that they don’t really believe in free market. They just believe in securing their own interests. IPP basically boils down to monopoly over pricing for big corporations. I say big corporations– or else try getting a patent if you are a lone guy working in your garage lab. In fact , time and time again it has been the case that if you are a brilliant inventor in a garage lab, you are inducted in some big corporation, and you would get 1$ for making them billions. It is only recently that garage inventors have also become entrepreneurs.The fact that we are knowledge species has to do with sharing of information, not patenting it. A truly creative thing beneficial to the whole humanity can come out only with free flowing of ideas. In fact, IPP is not something new to the history of human civilization. It has existed in one form or the other since ancient times. For example, in most ancient civilizations only people of high rank were allowed to read and write. If you are poor and do not belong to the upper gentry then you would be punished if you try to acquire knowledge and try to do something with it. Monopoly of knowledge is an old game. Progress in technology and general economy exploded in few hundred years only when society became more egalitarian in knowledge transfer. IPP flies in the face of egalitarian knowledge transfer as well as true principles of free market economy. Microsoft and its ilk are trying to reverse the clock of time and push us back to the era of darkness of knowledge.

Microsoft forgot that the knowledge capital it has, is not just because of Bill Gates, but because of the collective knowledge base of the humanity as a whole. It is trying to kick the very ladder it climbed on to this position, so that others can’t reach there. And it forgot what Newton said—” I seem brilliant because I stand on the shoulder of the giants”.

If someone else can come up independently with what you have made then it is not worth patenting. And if they can’t then you don’t need to patent it.

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The myth of average and the so called ‘keyword density’.

“Let’s take the average. ““Let’s analyze the keyword density of the page.” I hear these words often enough. The important thing is that in most of the cases- and by that I do not mean 51%, but something close to 95%- these techniques have absolutely no use.

Let us first talk about average, or mean. When we talk about taking the mean and it to be useful we usually assume(or should assume) that the data distribution is uniform. The estimation with average as a central tendency breaks apart when we are encountered with skewed data. In fact almost most of the data in the real world is skewed except for those textbooks examples. To bring home my point let me tell you a joke, about a statistician. It is said that there was a very tall statistician who was crossing a river with his family of a very short wife and 3 very small kids. He had to decide whether to cross the river or not. He being a mean guy(pun intended) he decided to take the mean or the average of the height of the whole family, and compare it with the depth of the river. He found out that the average height of his family just manage to top the depth of the river. And he decided to cross with his whole family. When he reached the other side, not surprisingly he found out that he is the only one who was able to cross the river, and the rest of the family drowned. The same happens in the real world estimation. The average or the mean is almost always a bad measure of central tendency. In fact nature works more on what is called Pareto Distribution, or 80-20 rule in layman’s parlance.

Now let us talk about word density. Let us for sometimes ignore the fact that the term does not satisfy the rigor of mathematical definition, and is more of a buzzword than actually something statistically useful. But the general idea is to match the most number of keywords pertaining to the supposed subject. Let us say you are manually looking for the page most relevant to the subject ‘apple computers’, and on your side you have a list of words pertaining to ‘apple computers’. One document you find that it contains the words– apple, steve, steve woz, steve jobs, mac,leopard etc etc etc…and it matches 90% of your word list. What is your conclusion? I would definitely say that the aforementioned document is NOT related to apple computers, but actually is a spam. So basically a simplistic keyword density spews out spam after spam and you are wondering what is wrong. It is not just that the word density technique is very easy to game, but that it also inherently is a mismatch to the real world situation. You don’t come across relevant documents with neatly placed word density. And to top it all, your list of relevant terms may not be complete and are likely to give lots of false positive.

I vote for banning these two words in the technical exchanges- average/mean and ‘word density’ so that we don’t fall into woolly thinking.

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