Archive for April, 2007

A solution to the abuse of obvious patents

Monday, April 30th, 2007

One aspect of patent law reform focuses on the issue that many patents are issued for techniques that are not novel or non-obvious, or for which prior art exists, or the patent is non-specific enough to be more like patenting an idea than a process. Patents are thrown out by the courts on a regular basis.

The problem is that the patent must be thrown out in court once issued, necessitating that the target of a patent lawsuit spends his own money in a gamble to try to convince the court that the patent is invalid. This is compounded by the fact that the USPTO examiner has no interest in closely examining patents to ensure that they are actually valid, because USPTO is paid the same fee whether the patent is valid or not.

So we have the current morass where a bunch of dubious patents are thrown at the USPTO, some of which “stick” and are granted, and then the grantee immediately embarks on a litigation strategy to extract as much money as possible through licensing before one day they pick the wrong fight and the patent is invalidated. Unfortunately, the companies who chose to “pay the piper” instead of fighting just threw their money down a hole.


Patent royalties should, by law, be secured in some form so that they may be returned to the licensee if the licensor’s patent is invalidated at any later point.

How it works

This could be accomplished by placing royalties in escrow and only allowing the licensor to access the interest until the end of the patent period. This would not work for companies who depend on license income to sustain their R&D budget.

Alternatively, the licensor should be allowed to purchase patent invalidation insurance from a private party who then possesses bonds covering the sum total of royalties paid out. If the patent is invalidated, the insurance company pays back the licensees and terminates the policy.

Private insurance patent examiners, unlike the USPTO, have a fiscal stake in the validity of the patent. They will exhaustively examine prior art, isolate the novel and non-obvious components of the patent, and ensure that the patent is specific enough to meet the demands of case law. The weaker the patent, the more expensive the insurance will be. The company then has to choose between paying a higher premium or cleaning up their patents.

This idea would be a win for technology firms who can be assured that if another company comes knocking for royalties on an iffy patent, that even if today they make the choice to license, the patent fees will be returned to them later if the patent turns out to be worthless. Several companies in the same industry could even pool their resources to attempt to get patents overturned that they all share a stake in. The more these companies have paid out in royalties, the more desperately they will work to build a case against the patent, and if it is overturned, everybody wins except the former holder of an abusive patent.

This idea is the free market at its best attempting to minimize the harms of the patent monopoly while allowing all of its fruits to continue unabated.

Gender transition announcements: Far from inexcusable, rather unavoidable

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I was surprised to find that the normally quite liberal Digg community tore apart sports commentator Mike Penner when he announced that he is a transsexual and would be henceforth living as a woman.

The complaints seem to take mostly two forms:

This announcement is a childish attention-getting ploy. If transsexuals would just shut up about themselves already, I wouldn’t find them so repulsive.

There is something to be said for tact and using appropriate forums, but how otherwise does one explain to colleagues and viewers that Mike’s position is now occupied by a woman that looks vaguely like Mike did? A fake firing/hiring orchestrated by management?

There is a good argument for a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy when it comes to one’s sexual orientation in the workplace, but not when it comes to gender transition. It’s just too earth shattering a change in terms of how others relate to the person to be possible to avoid discussion.

This announcement is not newsworthy or relevant, therefore Mike must have abused his media access to inappropriately blow his own horn.

We all learn from the challenges people face when nature marginalizes them into a minority. No one learns more than other members of that minority, especially those in more vulnerable positions, those who face a challenge that seems insurmountable.

Perhaps some of these commentators would be better served simply ignoring what they find irrelevant. The fact that they spend time posting about how boring, irrelevant, or infuriating the subject is to them suggests that their expressed ire belies a true interest of some sort, whether it be a personal axe to grind, or possibly even repression.

What this person did is the only sensible approach to his dilemma, and it’s sad to see Digg rip him apart for it.

Kitchen-Aid mixer quality

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

Kitchen-Aid mixers have a legendary status among kitchen appliances for their power and longevity. But in recent years, its seems more and more Kitchen-Aid mixers aren’t even lasting a year after purchase. Common complaints include stripped gears and motor failures.

What has happened to Kitchen-Aid?

Well, for one, Kitchen-Aid mixers were prior to 1986 made by Hobart, a manufacturer of professional food service equipment. In 1986, the Kitchen-Aid brand was sold to Whirlpool, a consumer appliance manufacturer.

This Usenet thread is very informative regarding the differences between Hobart-made Kitchen-Aid mixers and Whirlpool-made Kitchen-Aid mixers. The usual suspects are involved: plastic drive gears and an underpowered motor.

One thing you might notice, once you pick up a Hobart Kitchen-Aid on eBay is that a Hobart-made Kitchen-Aid is much heavier than it looks. That says something about the quality of the Hobart internals, but the simple reduction in weight of the Whirlpool models says volumes about the engineering tradeoffs that are commonly made in the name of marketing.

You can tell a Hobart model apart from a Whirlpool model, because the Hobart models all say Hobart somewhere on the housing or name plate.

Hint: To find a good eBay deal on a Hobart mixer, search for “kitchen-aid hobart”, but also click the box that says “Search title and description”. Most people will search for Hobart in the default title-only search and overlook the listings where Hobart is mentioned only in the description.

Also, if you didn’t get the instruction manual, one key warning is to be observed: don’t operate the mixer at a level above 2 if you are kneading bread dough.

2006 IRS telephone excise tax refund

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

The IRS announced this as a refund for taxes paid on long distance telephone service, but according to H&R Block, 60% of taxpayers don’t know about this refund; IRS estimates that 30% of those eligible for the refund are not claiming it. Even many of those who are aware of the excise refund are not aware that you can claim this refund for your cell phone’s bundled long distance service too!

Here are some useful instructions for how to claim the excise refund. It is not just a tax credit; even if you paid no taxes, then you will receive the refund. It is literally getting your own money back, for free!

Surprisingly enough, it is probably to your advantage to just take the standard refund, instead of going through all your bills and filing a Form 8913. Initially, I thought this was going to be a win for the “keep all paperwork and bills for 5 years, no matter how trivial” camp, but in the end it looks like you would have to be a special case for it to matter this time.

If you already filed your 2006 taxes, you might be thinking “drat!” at the missed opportunity. No problem; file a Form 1040X amendment, following the 1040X instructions, and using the copy of your 1040/1040A/1040EZ that you kept for your records when you filed as a quick reference. The IRS will adjust their records and send you a refund check if you are due one.