Picsel sues Apple over iPhone Graphics Update

Another year, another lawsuit. I assume that Picsel’s lawsuit involves either this patent¬†or this one. Here’s a list of Picsel’s issued patents in case you’re interested.

I’d never heard of Picsel before (their logo looks like something drawn by a bored intern using PowerPoint, so they’re clearly a company lacking in taste) but given their client list (most major consumer electronics companies and most major cellphone manufacturers) they’re obviously not simply patent trolls.

I am not a lawyer, let alone a patent lawyer, and I find the way patents describe processes to be amazingly annoying. The one thing you won’t find in a patent is a vaguely straightforward explanation of what the gizmo actually does. But you can piece it together…

As I read it, the first patent basically involves redrawing the screen using an approximation / cached tiles of the expected display and then replacing it with the actual pixels when they’re available (something pretty much every OS and many applications do to some extent, which seems to me to fall under the “bleeding obvious to anyone in the industry” category — unless Apple for some reason is using the very specific tiling technique described, which seems to me less obvious and less likely), while the latter looks like Picsel attempting to patent something vaguely reminiscent of Quartz Compositor (and hence falls under the “prior art” category since Apple has had Quartz Compositor since long before the patent was issued).

So, I’m guessing there’s at least some merit to the lawsuit and Apple will pay something in the tens or hundreds of millions. (After all, they settled with Burst for $10M and their case was a joke.)

Tilting at Windmills

Psystar isn’t my idea of a modern Don Quixote. Psystar’s latest tack in its legal wrangle with Apple (for those not familiar with the case, Psystar is selling Mac clones with Mac OS X pre-installed in — Apple claims — violation of its EULA) is to claim that it bought copies of Mac OS X fair and square and can resell them how it chooses. Apple cannot restrict Psystar’s ability to resell goods.

Now, in general, I like Apple and I don’t like Psystar. In “the world as it is” Apple is one of the relatively good guys, and Psystar is, at best, simply a bunch of guys trying to profit from nooks and crannies of IP law. Apple won’t license OS X, but — they figure — maybe we can do some kind of end-run around it.

This latest tactic is pretty interesting. If it succeeds the precedent it sets could basically kill the software industry. The software industry is devised on a legal fiction — that when you buy a box labelled “Adobe Photoshop CS3” you are buying a license (to use Photoshop CS3 as per the restrictions set forth in the EULA) and not a physical bunch of atoms to do with as you will (e.g. install a copy, crack its password protection, and then install cracked versions on every computer in your large organization).

Now, you may argue that Psystar isn’t committing piracy. It isn’t (for example) cracking its copy of Mac OS X (oops, actually it is) or selling more copies of it than it buys “fair and square”. But if the EULA’s strictures against modifying or reverse engineering the software or installing and running it on non-Apple computers isn’t valid, why should any other such stricture be?

This is a very slippery slope. More of a cliff, actually. Depending on how you read it, the DMCA really forbids you from playing a digital video altogether, since in order to play it you need to make copies of it all over the place (e.g. in the disk’s memory cache, your computer’s system RAM, your cache, your video card, and so on and so forth). In order for any of these agreements to make sense we need to close our eyes and wish really hard. Now if you come along and start taking an axe to clear cut, tangible, and obvious license conditions — like not being allowed to modify a product, reverse engineer it, or run it on unauthorized hardware — exactly how are the tooth fairy conditions going to survive?

I’d love to see the fantasy world of software licensing get a good whack in the head, but powerful interests will make sure such a thing never happens (at least, not in one seismic shift). In the meantime, I’d prefer for someone other than Apple to get it in the neck when software licensing gets a dose of reality.

Dumb Lawsuit of the week… er… day… Well, it’s the US so who can tell

Information Week reports that Apple is being sued (again) for monopolistic practices such as (a) not playing WMA audio files on iPods even though the chips in the iPods support it (thus hurting competitors, one assumes) and (b) charging for more for a 4GB iPod than a 1GB given the difference in cost between the memory chips (thus hurting consumers, one assume).

It’s our poor users who need WMA

Now, you can easily convert any music in your iTunes library into a CD. You can then play that music anywhere you can play music from a CD, which is to say anywhere. You can also easily export music from WMA format into … oh wait, you can’t. And you can’t because Microsoft makes it hard. But if I’m in business selling digital music, I can’t export music for iPods easily, because AAC is really proprietary, unlike WMA… Er, no wait. AAC isn’t proprietary, WMA is. The only reason I would want to export music in WMA format is to restrict what my customers can do with it, and Apple is unfairly preventing me from doing that. Bastards.

This is a special deal, just for you

One of the principles in law is that if everyone does something for long enough and no-one objects to it, then it’s pretty much legal. This is part of the English common law which is the framework within which US laws (and the US constitution) operate. There’s no question that it’s perfectly legal to sell the same product to different people for different prices. Academic licenses anyone? Barnes & Noble membership cards anyone? It’s also perfectly legal to paint different names on the same product and sell it for different prices. (If not, Audis would be VWs.)

But is it moral?

Back in the day, IBM sold mainframes with 2MB of memory in them but, unless you paid for the full monty, they only switched on 1MB. When I was in school, the only difference between the cheap and expensive Casio calculators we were required to buy was that the expensive ones had more of the functions marked on them — inside they were identical, and if you knew where the functions were you could use them on the cheaper calculators. Heck, Intel’s 486SX CPUs were 486DX CPUs with the floating point unit burned off. Single-sided 3.5 inch floppy disks were double-sided disks with a hole punched in the plasic case.

The entire computer “overclocking” fad is a consequence of the fact different “speed” CPUs generally come off a single assembly line, and are simply tested at different speeds. Pass a test at 2GHz, and you’re a 2GHz chip. Pass a test at 2.16GHz and you’re a 2.16GHz chip. But if we don’t have enough orders for 2.16GHz chips, we might sell chips that could have passed 2.16GHz tests as 2GHz chips, and in fact we generally do.

In all of these cases, companies — for perfectly good reasons — sold physically identical products for different prices, and this was — oddly enough — actually good for consumers. (It’s cheaper to make large quantities of one thing than smaller quantities of two things — so the companies generally made more money and the customers generally got cheaper products.)

Shouldn’t law suits need to pass some kind of minimum sanity check? Criminal cases have grand jury hearings where, presumably, at least some cases get rejected out of hand.

What is copyright, exactly?

For reasons I may get into one day I recently downloaded an electronic text version of the complete works of William Shakespeare. (For the record, I obtained it from the gutenberg project — www.gutenberg.net.) Anyway there’s something darn peculiar about this particular piece of electronic text: it has a copyright notice (unlike most texts from Project Gutenberg).

Now, let’s suppose that I use this text to publish my own edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare… am I in breach of copyright? Perhaps the creators of this text file have, like publishers of tables of logarithms in the past and of maps today, inserted errors in their text so that people selling copies can be detected and sued. But in this case, the only thing copied that was not in the public domain will have been the ERROR (whereas the implication of finding a copied error in a table of logarithms or a map is that the ACCURATE data has also been stolen).

It seems to me that technology creates opportunities for people to make money from intellectual property in novel ways (e.g. the recording industry), and that it is reasonable for governments to make and enforce laws for this to be conducted in a reasonable way. However, when technology destroys the basic underlying rationale for an industry (e.g. it is more convenient to make your own CDs now than to buy them) it behooves government to get out of the way rather than to create legal houses of cards.

Consider the film industry. Disney made Snow White a long time ago. 1939? I don’t remember exactly. It came out the same year that Gone With The Wind and Citizen Kane came out, I remember that.

If it were a book, Disney’s copyright would have expired, or at least it would be likely to expire sometime soon, and we could expect to see cheap copies of it coming out (including free electronic versions from Project Gutenberg) and of people making film versions without needing to obtain the author’s estate’s permission. This is the way copyright works and is intended to work: it provides a limited monopoly on created material to encourage its creation BUT it makes it free eventually because information should be free.

But, Snow White is a film, and so: (a) all the prints of Snow White in circulation were owned by Disney. They could never be legally copied or purchased, only “rented”. (b) Disney has “remastered” the film, resetting its copyright clock (this is the main reason behind remastering stuff, as far as I can see; any thoughts of improving audio quality, or whatever, are purely secondary). In short, if the film industry were to remain theatre-centric there’s no reason we could expect Snow White to ever enter the public domain.

But, the film industry is changing. Disney sells DVDs now. Maybe even DVDs of Snow White. Despite the region restriction system on DVDs (which should simply be illegal in my opinion) and MPEG-2 encryption, it’s possible to “rip” DVDs to hard disk with a typical home computer in about 30% of the DVD’s total content duration. From there it’s a very simple process to convert the DVD more-or-less losslessly into MPEG-4 (so it takes up 1/4 the disk space) and burn DVD movies onto CDs. You can do this now (which is theoretically illegal) or when the copyright expires (which, if the film industry has its way, will be never).

It really doesn’t matter. Let’s suppose that we form a DVD club and pool all the DVDs we own. As long as only one of us is playing a given DVD at a time, we should be fine. Since a typical household might own 100 DVDs and have 0.25 of a DVD playing at any given time (do you watch DVDs more than 6h/day?), there’s pretty much nothing the industry can do except raise the price of DVDs in some kind of death spiral.

In a few years, people will be recording movies and live concerts using the cameras built into their phones anyway (with CCDs offering resolution equivalent or superior to HDTV) — and a fairly simple program will remove any perspective distortion (and shake) prior to distribution from web sites outside the influence of the RIAA; nth generation TiVos will rip TV shows to hard disk and automatically clip commercials from them (sometimes they’ll be wrong and human intervention will be required — so, at most one person will have to watch the ads); and for that matter electronic copies of books and comics will finally start to appear as digitally scanning paper documents gets more automated.