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Swartz’s Last Gift, the Invasion of the Androids & More…

Friday FOSS Week in Review

Will appeals court ruling mean death to software patents?

Absolutely no one knows what a ruling handed down last week by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals will ultimately mean–but it might be very good for those of us who’ve been arguing against software patents. Indeed, the ruling had PJ at Groklaw throwing out three separate “OMG”s in her article with the announcement. In other words, she was euphoric:

“The Federal Circuit. OMG. We’ve worked hard for so many years to get to this point, I almost can’t believe it. And I suppose it’s possible it could be appealed, but this is proof of what I’ve always told you, that education is never a waste. Judge Rader is very upset, I gather. He has written a dissent. But he didn’t prevail. And I’m sure he gave it his best effort. OMG. This is a new day…

“I remember the first time we wrote on Groklaw that software and patents need to get a divorce. Remember? So long ago, and how everybody laughed at us. I remember that too. I am thinking about Apple and Microsoft and all the software patent bullies. Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ll read it more carefully now.”

The case was CLS Bank v. Alice and the court ruled that four patents held by electronic marketplace Alice were not enforceable because they were too abstract. Many are saying the ruling seems to overturn the long held belief that computer software is patentable. Unfortunately, however, the decision was perhaps not decisive enough to set a clear precedent. Five out of ten judges were on the majority side, while the five other judges partly agreed and partly disagreed.

In reporting the ruling for PCWorld, Grant Gross explained:

“…Julie Samuels, an intellectual property lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the ruling gives little guidance to courts on patent eligibility. While judges on the court agreed Alice’s patents weren’t valid, they agreed on little else, she said.

“‘We have not very much more direction as to what’s patentable,’ said Samuels, who filed a brief asking the court to invalidate the Alice patents. ‘This ruling is all over the place.’

The variety of opinions from the judges leaves the case open for Supreme Court review, she said. ‘The only thing the judges seem to agree on is that we need more clarity, but they can’t even figure out what that looks like,’ Samuels added. ‘No one understands what the hell is or isn’t patentable, including the … federal circuit.'”

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The way we figure it, too many companies hold too many tens of billions of dollars in software patents for this to be the deciding ruling. Stay tuned for the Roberts Court to weigh-in–sooner rather than later.

Newegg & Overstock win patent battle against Alcatel-Lucent

This wasn’t the only ruling in our favor handed down by the Federal Circuit Court. On Wednesday, Reuters reported that online shopping sites Newegg and Overstock prevailed in a patent fight against Alcatel-Lucent when the court upheld a lower court ruling in the two defendant’s favor. At issue was a patent to allow computers to adapt the screen size of shopping sites, rather than having that adjustment made by the server. The lower court had invalidated the patent because the technology was “obvious.”

Reuters reported that Newegg has a clear policy of fighting patent lawsuits:

“Newegg’s chief legal officer, Lee Cheng, said the ruling vindicated a decision made about six years ago to fight infringement lawsuits that Newegg found frivolous.

“‘Patent trolling is a scam. We didn’t do anything wrong,’ he said, using the derisive industry term for companies that file large numbers of patent infringement lawsuits.

“Cheng said that fewer infringement lawsuits were being filed against his company because they have been aggressive about fighting them and about recouping legal fees.”

We figure that with this ruling, the folks over at Sears Holdings and are crying, “Wow! I could’ve had a V8.” They earlier settled and coughed up some bucks rather than fight the same patent claim.

Feds case against Aaron Swartz to be released to public

On Monday a U.S. judge in Boston ordered that sealed documents in the criminal hacking case against Aaron Swartz be released. Swartz, who was charged with stealing articles from a database, committed suicide in January. As explained in a news article released by Reuters on Monday:

“The case ignited a controversy over U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s reliance on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act law. Prosecutors working for Ortiz used the law to charge Swartz with 13 felony counts that carried maximum prison time of 35 years although he had not profited from the JSTOR downloading.”

Katherine Landergan reported on that MIT, whose computers were used in the alleged hacking, would be allowed to redact the names of university officials and others named in the documents. This is because the government, MIT and JUSTOR (the digital library whose data was allegedly breached) all claimed that exposing names could result in harassment and retaliation.

According to Landergan’s report, this ruling didn’t set well with the young man’s family:

“But Swartz’s father, Robert Swartz, said he wanted the university to release any relevant documents. In an interview with the Globe, he said that ‘we believe they should release all the documents related to this case and related to Aaron, whether or not those are given to the government.'”

Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event on December 13, 2008–Photo supplied by Wikipedia
Much controversy ensued immediately following Swartz’s tragic death when it was revealed to the public that prosecuters wouldn’t agree to a plea deal that didn’t include Swartz pleading guilty to felony charges and spending at least four to six months in prison. Since his death, the MIT computer system has been hacked three or more times.

Swartz accomplished more in his 26 years than most people do in 60 or more. At 14 he was part of the group that authored the RSS 1.0 web syndication specification and was later instrumental in the creation and growth of Reddit. He was also a dedicated social activist who diligently worked for the defeat of SOPA.

The New Yorker unveils Strongbox

It appears that Mr. Swartz left those of us who remain behind a little posthumous gift–one that called upon his considerable skills as a coder and his understanding of the needs of his fellow activists. The creation, as we’ve first seen it, is Strongbox. Revealed by The New Yorker this week, it’s a way for whistle-blowers and other sources who wish to remain anonymous to communicate with near total assurance there will be no interception by the likes of government agencies. It can also be used by bloggers living in nations where dissent isn’t tolerated to publish secretly and securely.

Strongbox logo.Strongbox is based on Swartz’s creation DeadDrop, which makes use of the Tor anonymity network. The project was commissioned by Condé Nast (publisher of Wired and The New Yorker) because the publisher recognized they had fallen behind in developing ways to protect sources who were putting themselves in danger by speaking-out. Swartz agreed to develop the program, only if it would be released as free software. DeadDrop is licensed under the GPLv3 or later.

For more information on DeadDrop, we recommend Inside Strongbox, the Hyper-Secure Inbox Built by Aaron Swartz published today on Motherboard.

Internet goes down again in Syria

Speaking of places where DeadDrop might come in handy…

On Wednesday, the Internet shut down in Syria again, this time for about an hour and a half. According to the Associated Press, authorities are claiming that the blackout was due to a cut cable during a rebel bombing about 40 miles north of Damascus. You’ll remember that on May 7th and 8th, Syria’s Internet went down for about 20 hours.

MS developer says Linux runs faster than Windows

Holy baked Alaskan, Batman! There’s a developer in Redmond who didn’t drink the Flavor Aid and is willing to honestly talk shop–as long as he can remain anonymous.

We learned of this on Monday, when Steven Vaughan-Nichols filed a report on ZDNet. Evidently, it all started when this person posted to Hacker News. When those posts disappeared from the site, they were reposted, with permission, on the blog Zorinaq, which is published by Marc Bevand, a senior software engineer for Adconion Media Group.

The Microsoft developer lays the blame for Window’s poor performance firmly in the lap of the culture in Redmond, which we’ve heard before:

“Windows is indeed slower than other operating systems in many scenarios, and the gap is worsening. The cause of the problem is social. There’s almost none of the improvement for its own sake, for the sake of glory, that you see in the Linux world.

“Granted, occasionally one sees naive people try to make things better. These people almost always fail. We can and do improve performance for specific scenarios that people with the ability to allocate resources believe impact business goals, but this work is Sisyphean. There’s no formal or informal program of systemic performance improvement. We started caring about security because pre-SP3 Windows XP was an existential threat to the business. Our low performance is not an existential threat to the business.”

The entire thread can be read over on Bevand’s blog. It’s good reading.

Google says number of Android devices reaches 900 million

900 million! Did you hear that? It has to be true; it was reported on Network World on Wednesday. Wow! If we just had a penny for each one of those–wait a minute, we’re doing the math–OMG, we’d be millionaires nine times over.


Well, that does it again. We’ll see you next Friday with another Week In Review. Until then, may the FOSS be with you…

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