We all heard many times that software patents are bad. The last week’s ruling on Apple vs. Samsung case was quickly show-cased as yet another example of complete lack of any reasons behind software patents. Yet many (including myself) agree that Samsung indeed copied Apple’s design. What options does Apple have to stop it beyond software patents?
The first and only option that comes to mind is the copyright law. As any art work, Apple’s designs are protected by the copyright law. And it seems natural that Apple should go after Samsung using the copyright law. However, the copyright law includes two key provisions that make it impossible: idea/expression differentiation and fair-use doctrine. Thus, Samsung doesn’t violate the copyright law unless it copies Apple’s icons pixel by pixel, or builds its phone with the exact iPhone dimensions and buttons.
The patents and the copyright law in the current form are outdated and don’t match the reality of the fast moving and fast copying 21st century. However, if as a society we want to reward inventors and original artists, then we need to find a way to fix patent and copyright laws. The other proposed options (e.g. government grants/prizes) are even worse solutions to the problem. And it is not too hard to fix them. First, we should drastically reduce the protection period to 1 year or may be even less. The long protection period provided by both the patents and the copyright law actually shifts the risk/reward tradeoff in the wrong direction and makes it easier for companies or pirates to decide to infringe on patents or copy the digital content. Nobody in 21st century is going to wait years until patent expires or the art work goes into public domain. Second, we should build into the patent law an automatic way to license the patent and pay reasonable licensing fees w/o the need to negotiate with the patent holder. Third, we should include “fair use”-type clause into the patent law to ensure that university and other research organizations can freely use patents. And the last but not the least, we should drastically speed up the approval of patents. Patents should be granted automatically and review on patents should be performed only if someone wants to challenge them. The patents database will be the place to go to find out how to solve a problem to avoid duplication of efforts, not a sacred place you (as engineer) should never look at because of the fear to be sued for knowingly infringing on a patent.
I read somewhere today that currently Facebook stores more than 100 terabytes of data which is more than half of the size of the digital archive of the Library of Congress. Nobody will argue that Facebook data are way less valuable to our civilization than the Library of Congress archive. And nobody will argue that more people daily read Facebook than the Library of Congress archive.
We are living in the age of information explosion. Each of us gets a daily dose of information that an average man in 19th century would get in a period of few months. Internet, TV, radio changed our information environment forever. We hear or read stories from around the world. And we automatically process and remember things that have no real interest to us. Do you really care in which rehab Charlie Sheen goes? Really?
I remember in the days when internet was young, I was getting about a dozen emails per day. Every email I received back then was important and addressed to me. I remember reading them all, thinking about them and writing pretty long replies. Today, after filtering out all the spam, marketing emails, automatic emails, etc. I receive a couple hundred emails per day. Most of the time, I am in the “cc” list “just in case” and “to be kept in the loop”. I am an information junkie and I actually read all the emails. Well, not “read” read. Just “scan” read. And I rarely think about emails or write more than a paragraph in reply.
We produce tons of information today yet it has a pretty low quality. Most of the updates on Twitter and posts on Facebook should have never been published either because they are trivial copy/pastes (read “link reposts” – I hate to see the same link posted 10 times in one day) or because nobody cares about the topic except the author him/herself. And even if the update doesn’t match the two categories above, more often than not it still has a low quality since the author didn’t have time to think about it, polish it, sleep on it. The few really interesting posts are buried in the mountains of trash. And we don’t have a good way to discover them without looking through all the garbage.
Does this mean that I will stop using Twitter/Facebook, write to the blog and quit email? Not really. After pressing “Publish” button in WordPress I am going to “share” this post on Facebook and Twitter. Yet another small piece of information junk will be added to the pile. I am an information junkie. Are you?
Many years ago each Vikings family had its own brewing stick to stir the wort. It was important to use the stick to get the beer “right”. Vikings guarded their family sticks and passed them from one generation to another. They didn’t know why the brew stick works. Only the discovery of yeast by Louis Pasteur in 1860’s explained to us what happens and allowed brewers around the world to improve the beer by cultivating yeast cultures and adapting them for different conditions. Today, you can find yeast designed for beer and wine, ales and lagers, low alcohol and strong beers, low and high temperature fermentation, and pretty much anything else you can think of.
When you build a product, you have many brewing sticks that can make your product better. Each feature you build adds a unique taste to your product. It is important to know why and how it works. To get this understanding, you need to collect data. And this is where many product managers fail. They feel that with limited resources it is more important to get more features out. And in order to do that they remove data gathering and analysis from the product plan. Later on, more features are developed, but nobody actually knows if these features make customers happier or not. As the result, product decisions are made purely based on the “gut feeling”. If you are lucky to have one of these guys with perfect “gut feeling” then you succeed. Otherwise, you fail (and it happens most of the time).
The solution to this problem is to build data gathering and analytics into your product from the first day. This is the most important of all investments you can make. When you try new things, make sure to always measure success and correct things if needed. There are very few companies who have this built into their DNA. The one I know the most about is Netflix. They test all the features in A/B testing on live website on small percentage of users before applying them to everyone. This model is built into the core of the Netflix product and it works absolutely great. Netflix collects enormous amount of data and this provides great hindsights into real customers needs and preferences. I absolutely love my experience with Netflix and it is one of my personal favorite businesses. In the same time, I know (and you know as well) many other websites and businesses left behind in Vikings time with many brewing sticks and no clue what is going on.
The German Beer Purity Law of 1516 named the only allowed components for brewing: malt, hops, and water. With the Pasteur’s discovery, the law had to be amended to also include yeast.