Saturday, October 13, 2007

Saturday Morning Rant

Normally I try and discuss my dislike of companies/groups/news stories in a more thorough manner, acknowledging the pros and cons of all sides to the story. But this week has been a killer one for tech news, and thus I am beyond all logical discussion of the 2 most outrageous stories of the week. Maybe once I get this out I will be capable of taking a step back and viewing the situation more objectively (not that I believe anything can be looked at objectively), but until then passion will prevail.

1. The MPAA is trying to prosecute TorrentSpy for not complying with a court order. As a little bit of background, TorrentSpy is a site that allows users to search for torrent files, or files that allow users to download movies and music. I don't know in detail how torrent files work, but I do know that sites such as TorrentSpy don't provide the files, just a path on how/where to find them. The IP addresses of all visitors to the site are stored in their server's RAM (for a short period of time), and the MPAA decided that it should have access to a log file of those IP addresses. Unfortunately, a court agreed with the MPAA, and ordered TorrentSpy to hand over all data on individuals who use the site. While the order was being challenged in court, TorrentSpy did something genius: it shut down access to the site from all IP addresses in the United States, thereby agreeing to give the MPAA a log while at the same time ensuring that the log would not contain any data on people in the U.S. Brilliant idea, right? Well, the MPAA doesn't think so. They are now trying to go after TorrentSpy for defying the court order to hand over the data.

There are so many problems with this that I don't even know where to begin! One, the judge must not know what RAM is. RAM is not a log file, and it only holds data for so long before new data bumps out the old. As Zeph puts it, asking somebody to turn over RAM logs is like asking somebody to write down every single thought he/she has and turn them in.

Two, TorrentSpy didn't previously (before it was asked to) have a log file that contained the IP addresses of everybody who visited the site. Isn't there a law that protects people from having to start collecting data that wasn't previously collected just because somebody now wants access to the data?

Three, the court order was a way to scare TorrentSpy and similar sites into shutting down. So what did TorrentSpy do? It basically shut itself down in the United States. But with the new case filed, the MPAA is saying, "We want you to start offering your services again so we can catch people doing what you won't allow them to do anymore." If RAM can be likened to thoughts, then I think the MPAA can be likened to three-year-old children who first ask for food and then throw a tantrum when you feed them. Give it a rest already! As Zonk kindly points out, go after the people who are making money off of selling illegal DVDs, not people who provide free file-sharing services.

The MPAA needs to realize that the War on Piracy is going to go just as well as the War on Drugs, or the War on Terror. No matter how often they tell people to "just say no," no matter how many times they supposedly find the location of the caves where the pirates are hiding out, the public is going to continue to download movies. Either find a way to allow the public to do it legally, or be prepared to fight a never-ending battle.

2. Microsoft is charging Linux, Open Office, and other open source software providers with patent infringement. Are patents being violated? I have no idea. If patent infringement is occurring, is Microsoft just as guilty as anybody else? Probably. As with the last issue, there are so many problems with this lawsuit that I don't know where to begin.

One, Microsoft needs to stop bullying the smart kids in school. Open source is an amazing approach to software. It tries to allow everybody to download quality software free of charge, while at the same time giving anybody who is smart enough to code the chance to make great programs. It's like a great art cooperative; the creativity fostered in such an environment produces better products that the public can benefit from (I have to say it again) for FREE. But no, Microsoft wants to make sure that everybody has to pay for its expensive, sometimes inferior products.

Two, it is true that Linux use has doubled in the home in the last year. That's right, Linux users (the sum of all Linux distributions) account for 0.81% of the market share. Vista, the new Microsoft operating system, is more popular than all of the flavors of Linux combined. So why does Microsoft bother to go after less than 1% of users? Probably because more businesses are realizing that Linux is a better system to use on servers, and Dell now sells PCs that come with Unbuntu, not Windows.

Which leads me to issue three: For the first time Microsoft is faced with some competition, and what do they do? They file a lawsuit to stop their competitor! Rather than try to improve their operating system, their software, their customer support, or anything other products they manufacture, they try and eliminate the competition outright. If for no other reason, these charges should be dropped to ensure better market competition, which would lead to better software for all. As my friend Will Faught said in regards to making software more secure, keep the government out of it! The real suit should be The People vs. Microsoft. The crime: holding a monopoly in the computer industry for so long that it has stifled the advances that could have been made. Viva la Open Source!

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Blogger indil said...

The court order about RAM does seem pretty silly at first, but I think the gist of it was that TorrentSpy said, "We choose not to log our users," and the judge replied, "Well, I order you to choose to from now on." It was possible to log the data, so they were told to do so. I think if you're ordered to do something that costs money by a court, you must be paid to do it by those demanding it be done. For example, I think the government gives lots of money to telcos to build and maintain points of access for the government to perform wiretapping. It's despicable they want the US service reinstated.

Software patents are a quagmire. It has turned the software industry into a technological and knowledge arms race that will culminate in a deadlock where nothing can be created without paying off the people in your way. It sounds like a lawyer's heaven -- meaning a hell for the rest of us. I'm of the opinion that software shouldn't be patentable at all, since I view software as mathematics, which is unpatentable, rather than science or engineering. But that's another argument.

The sad fact is that software patents do exist, and it's not evil to want to enforce them. If you put in the effort to come up with something worthy of a patent, then you deserve all the privileges that come with it, including the privilege to deny others the ability to use your idea. That's just the way it works. If Microsoft doesn't want Linux to use one of its patented ideas, then fine, that's their prerogative, and they shouldn't be despised for not letting us ride the gravy train.

But that's not what's going on here; they're doing this to try to scare Novell and Red Hat and other for-profit Linux distributors into buying licenses from them to avoid potential lawsuits. They won't even enumerate the specific patents they claim are being infringed. Novell ended up signing a deal with Microsoft, where Novell's products would be associated with Microsoft and be exempt from any future patent infringement lawsuits by Microsoft. An interesting twist on this is that (if I understood it correctly) in terms of this deal Microsoft can be perceived to be a distributor of Novell's products, a lot of which are open source. If Novell distributes any software covered by the new GPL license that infringes Microsoft patents, it would invalidate Microsoft's ability to exclude anyone from using those patented ideas. It was fun seeing them try to wriggle out of that one.

October 14, 2007 1:23 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

Maybe Microsoft shouldn't be despised for deciding to enforce patent law (which, as you mention, is ridiculous in the case of software). But I think they're intentions are despicable. They won't even outline which patents are being violated, which means that it's not about being angry that somebody else stole their ideas. They're just using it as a tactic to force these companies into forking over large sums of money. And that, more than anything else, is why it irks me. It's not about utilizing the law for what it is intended to protect, it's about enlarging the profits of a company that has so much money it doesn't know what do with it. Then again, maybe all corporate law was passed to protect the profits of bid business...

October 18, 2007 11:46 AM  

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