11 January 2005

Rather a wild trip around the news this morning. Really wild, ranging across three continents.

To begin with, let's consider software patents. Bill Gates seems to have a wild hair up his butt about software patents, while IBM may be adopting a more-relaxed attitude. Although dedicating 500 patents for public use is a good step, it's less than it sounds (at least at present), as it represents a little over 15% of the patents (admittedly, for all purposes) that IBM was granted in 2004 alone. Perhaps the most-perceptive comment offered in the media thus far has been this one (from that same article in the Guardian):

Copyrighting allows people to benefit from their labours, but software patents allow the companies with the largest legal departments to benefit from everyone else's work. For the moment, the folly stops at the borders of Europe. An attempt to allow software patenting within the EU was halted last month by a Polish veto, which shows that a post-communist country understands the demands of a market capitalism better than the world's richest capitalist.

Actually, just reading the IP Clause (Art. I, § 8, cl. 8) should show the real problem.

The Congress shall have Power… To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries…

I'm afraid that's sort of like the Militia Clause (which, of course, might be some interesting guidance for those who would read the Second Amendment without it): The precatory language indicates that any conduct that tends to stifle innovation is outside the intent of the IP clause. Of course, that's an awfully fine distinction, and leaves open the question of whether the Necessary and Proper Clause (Art. I, § 8, cl. 18) authorizes Congress to go beyond pure "pro-innovation" efforts, or whether this is a foreseeable consequence. In any event, though, what it clearly does not contemplate is offensive use of copyright and patent as part of static "portfolios" not in active exploitation—taking out a software patent and sitting on it without either exploiting it or licensing others to do so. Of course, solving this is not trivial without causing other problems; but Gates's attitude will no doubt be ascribed to everyone else who wants to protect his/her IP, including authors, illustrators, photographers, etc.

Then there's the Wild World of Sports. Frequent readers of this blawg will know that I'm a fan neither of draconian antidoping efforts nor of the shamateurism of college "student-athletes". Perhaps this seems odd for someone from a hard-core science background, but I believe in a certain kind of magic. Frazier's Rule of Names is important psychologically, philosophically, and substantively: Naming has a powerful influence on behavior and even reality. (In a more rigorous sense, this is a weak form of the Whorf hypothesis.) By choosing to call its efforts against abuse of performance-enhancing substances "antidoping," the various athletic authorities have tried to paint their position as being against cheating and stupidity. This is inconsistent with (a) advertisements for sport drinks of dubious healthfulness and bedroom performance-"enhancers" at athletic events; (b) judging and refereeing "standards"; and/or (c) athletes like Randy Moss.

Well, maybe not with Randy Moss, after all; at least we don't have the NCAA trying to convince us that he's a scholar of some kind. That's not to say that some "student-athletes" aren't; just that, with exceptions notable precisely by their rarity, those on scholarship in revenue sports generally aren't. I would be perhaps a bit more draconian than the NCAA: Students should not be eligible for athletic scholarships unless their numeric indicators at the time of admission place them in the top 75% of the class that actually enters, not curable with summer school or less than two years of 50th-percentile academic performance at the same school. OK, maybe this is going to hurt Stanford a lot more than, say, Fresno State; I'm not sure that would be a bad thing. It can, however, be done; the soccer team my sophomore year in college started nine National Merit Scholars and finished third nationally. OK, so it was Division III—but at that time, there really wasn't a helluva lot of difference between Division I and Division III play.

And, for a really warped vision of reality, take a look at this Guardian article on FOIA, issued in anticipation of the UK's own new equivalent. I only wish that things were as simple as implied—and Ms Left properly does not imply they are simple.