Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Doing away with business patent methods

The Statesman Web

Wednesday, September 29 2004

Cyber age: ND Batra: Doing away with business patent methods

Vivius, Inc., based in Minneapolis, is a most recent example of companies rushing to patent their unique methods of doing business, thus creating impenetrable walls to hide ideas that should be tested and debated in public. The company, according to Business Wire, calls itself “the architect of a core technology and innovative transaction model that allows consumers to calculate a unique insurance premium for each participating family member, based on their individual preferences and choices of co-payment levels and providers.” The company offers its Internet-based model “to consumers through insurance carriers under a turnkey private-labelling agreement.” Once you call something a business method or a technology, you could ask for a patent. Even one’s swagger or a Dirty Harry look could be called a business method and be patented.But what is “turnkey private-labelling agreement”? If privacy can be protected through any unique business method, let Vivius demonstrate it to the public. The reality is that as soon as a person logs on to a Website, he spills all personal information, in spite of himself. Any promise of a total Web privacy is a business hoax. Nonetheless, I do believe there is an urgent need for developing a system that allows a person to shop for the best and least expensive clinics, hospitals and drug stores whether they are located in the USA, Canada or India. Vivius does nothing of the kind. Cost of drugs and medical malpractice insurance is tearing the health care system apart. Congress should put a moratorium on Internet business method patenting until lawmakers sort out how to regulate the growing field of e-commerce. As a system expert, I believe that every system tends to dissipate and become corrupt. That is now happening with the system of granting patents, which Congress under Article 1, Section 8 established to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive rights to their respective writings and discoveries.” But in this swirling chaos of greed and more corporate greed that is threatening global e-commerce, it is time for Congress to intervene. The moratorium on granting e-patents for the next five to 10 years would allow entrepreneurs to use each other’s business methods without any fear of infringement of intellectual property rights. This would serve the societal purpose of expanding e-commerce better than granting an Internet patent for every clever stroke of doing business in a different way. If the constitutional objective of encouraging inventiveness can be accomplished in a less damaging way that at the same time maximises societal interest, it must be tried. Patent should not become a form of corporate aggrandisement. There is a historical precedent of dealing with this kind of chaotic situation, as it happened in the early days of the development of radio. During World War I, radio was beginning to develop into a medium of business, shipping and military long-distance communication. There were many patent disputes between Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company and other inventors. In order to put a stop to patent disputes and advance radio, the US Navy took control over radio technology patents until the end of WW I. Borrowing and raiding each other’s technology hastened the development of radio, which became a dominant cultural and business medium after the War. E-commerce patenting today is in a similar predicament. The present system of granting business method patents began with Street Bank & Trust Co. v Signature Financial Group (1998) regarding Hub-and-Spoke mutual fund system. It picked up steam with Priceline.com “Name your price,” and became a hot issue when Amazon.com claimed victory over Barnsandnoble.com regarding the patent on “1-Click” business method. This development is nothing but negation and perversion of the original purpose of the Patent Law and if unchecked, it is going to hurt our vision of global business via the Internet. By imposing a limited moratorium over Internet business method patents, Congress would help e-commerce develop rapidly and encourage inventiveness and creativity. It is time to balance the public interest with the interests of big business.The public interest would be better served by raising the standard of “non-obviousness and novelty” to never-before-experienced extreme uniqueness, which should evoke an expert response: Wow! A variation on an old theme or a method of doing business is not uniqueness. In concrete terms, if a business method is not 90 per cent new and non-obvious, it does not deserve any patent. Anything less is prior technology and belongs to the public domain. The argument that businesses won’t invest money in developing new business methods is baseless. The momentum of e-commerce is so powerful today that nothing could stop investors from pouring money into new e-commerce ventures. I believe e-commerce would have multiplied manifold if “Name your price” and “1-click” were placed in the public domain rather than given proprietary control to already well-established businesses. Amazon.com and Priceline.com as successful business concepts need to be further developed and that can be done only through the challenge of the marketplace. Same is the case with the Vivius business method model. In the age of privatisation, we have been forgetting the public interest. In a nation where monopoly is anathema, we have begun to embrace monopoly as a fundamental right of corporations.

(ND Batra is Professor of Communications, Norwich University, Vermont.)

The Statesman

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Patent your swagger or Dirty Harry look

Vivius, Inc., based in Minneapolis, is a most recent example of companies rushing to patent their unique methods of doing business, thus creating impenetrable walls to hide ideas that should be tested and debated openly in the public. The company, according to Business Wire, calls itself “the architect of a core technology and innovative transaction model that allows consumers to calculate a unique insurance premium for each participating family member, based on their individual preferences and choices of co-payment levels and providers.” The company offers its Internet-based model “to consumers through insurance carriers under a turnkey private-labeling agreement.” Once you call something a business method or a technology, you could ask for a patent. Even one’s swagger or a Dirty Harry look could be called a business method and be patented. But what is this thing called “turnkey private-labeling agreement”?

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Being there when you are not there

Telepresence: Being there when you’re not there

I don’t know whether it would help us make a better sense of the world, whether it would improve our awareness and responsiveness to the human condition if we were able to surf the Web through eyeglasses or do instant messaging through picture cellphones. Nevertheless, the desktop is becoming mobile and ubiquitous as wireless computer chips get embedded into various devices. Wireless global networks are collapsing space and time, turning geographic space into cyberspace, and are bringing people together through telepresence for collaboration and competition in the workplace and cultural space. The experience of the presence of others in a virtual environment created by networked communication is called telepresence. “Bombay Dreams” are made of Silicon Valley and American jobs are exported to India, thus laments Lou Dobbs of CNN, fearing the loss of American dominance in the rising tide of the digital civilization. It is not his daddy’s world any more.

Every human activity from pornography to the most complex mathematical hypothesis is nothing but information in the binary format. Every human activity that takes place in an analogue world can be turned into digital data, a binary mathematical code of 0s and 1s, off-on signals, and can instantly be distributed globally through computer networks, thus extending the reach of human communication—for good or evil. Digital data can not only be stored and retrieved instantly anywhere but they can also be transformed into predictive intelligence about human behavior regarding commerce, national security or any other social or political activity. Books, music files, love bugs or terrorist messages, for example, become indistinguishable as they converge in a digital stream and surge through cyberspace. They can be transmitted and distribute instantly and much less expensively than in the analogue world.

Convergence, instantaneity and feedback interactivity make the Internet the most powerful medium of communication ever developed. Since the traditional media including books, television, newspapers, magazines, radio, music and interpersonal communication (instant messaging) are converging on the Internet as a multimedia stream into which anyone can plug in, their power increases manifold and in ways whose implications we still don’t understand. Outsourcing, for example, has given India a constant state of telepresence in the American political and corporate discourse. Unlike the offshoring of manufacturing, outsourcing of research and development and other forms of intellectual and professional work is bringing India and the United states into a cyberspace domain where brainpower and creativity could be shared and enhanced. The Internet thus is revolutionary in the sense that it is lowering barriers for fusion and transfusion of cultures.

The Canadian scholar Herald Innis wrote in his seminal book, The Bias of Communication (1951), that a new medium of communication creates a specific cultural shift and changes our concept of space and time, with tremendous cultural consequences. “A medium of communication has an important influence on the dissemination of knowledge over space and time and it becomes necessary to study its characteristics in order to appraise its influence in its cultural setting.” Although ancient people tried to abridge space and time by sending messages especially in wartime through drums and smoke signals, not until the invention of telegraph was it possible to think about communication in terms other than transportation. Like goods, messages were communicated from place to place at a speed that the best transportation system of the time, for example, the pony express or the railroad made it possible. Telegraph altered the geography-based metaphor of communication, which ceased to be synonymous with transportation. As telegraph triggered the development of new technologies in the early part of the 20th century, as telephone, radio, and television became ubiquitous, communication became increasingly footloose, liberated from the constraints of space and time. Computer networks and the Internet have further altered our view of space and time. A networked organization or an individual with instant messaging and e-mail has different feel of space and time than the people of the pre-digital era. The keyboard is the door to cyberspace and once you are there, you are simultaneously in a synchronous and asynchronous world, a world that gives a greater illusion of freedom and control than the real world. But the keyboard is a clumsy device and in fact a handicap for seamless communication. Its era is coming to an end.

Cyberspace was first coined by William Gibson in Neuromancer (1984) to describe a world in which computers in symbiosis with human nervous system create a virtual world. Today cyberspace has become a multi-dimensional universe in which multimedia graphics, information and telepresence create activities that are as real as they are in physical space. Telepresence, for example, could enable a Boston surgeon to remotely control a robot to perform surgery in Kolkata; or a group of business executives in Bangalore and Boston to execute a business plan, an example of space, time and brainpower working in tandem. Terrorists could do the same.

Among the rising cyber class in the United States, there’s a widespread awareness that the new decentered networked space that hovers over the geographic space is no less real. For example, if you buy a Music CD at e-Bay, Amazon.com or iTunes, it is no less real than going to Wal-Mart or a corner music store. The dilemma is that as more and more people experience activities in cyberspace through telepresence, they are not sure what is private and what is public; what is American and what is un-American; and what to do about it.

No easy way out of Iraq

US elections: No easy way out

By ND Batra

For Republicans, the world is a dark and dangerous place and one can’t be too careful.

In one of the Republican campaign ads, spokesperson Senator John McCain says this war against terrorism is “between right and wrong, good and evil.

And should our enemies acquire for their arsenal the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons they seek, this war will become an even bigger thing. It will become a fight for our survival. America is under attack by depraved enemies who oppose our every interest and hate every value we hold dear.”

This pre-fabricated dark vision of the world has been driving the Bush administration to pursue a policy of pre-emptive action and instead of waiting for hard irrefutable evidence to emerge that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons, it acted on the assumption that he had them or he would if he could.

In a highly critical report released on Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee said that Bush took the country to war against Iraq on extremely poor and unreliable intelligence.

The CIA had developed a “Group Think,” which prevented it from questioning its own assumptions. And the Bush administration still thinks that it was right in going to war.

The Democratic campaign says that its presumptive presidential nominee, John Kerry, a Vietnam combat veteran, and his vice-presidential running mate, John Edwards, the upwardly mobile southern Senator who rose from the blue collar home of a mill worker, are “a new team for America with a plan to make us stronger at home and respected in the world.”

Their domestic priorities are different. They are concerned about offshoring of jobs and foreign trade, which they perceive as skewed against the USA regardless of what economists say.

Because of the Bush administration’s proclivity for pre-emption and inability to seek the cooperation of European allies, the USA has lost respect in the world.

And they will restore the country to its pre-eminence by seeking cooperation and forging new ties, especially with European allies.

Referring to how the Bush administration misled the nation about weapons of mass destruction by deliberately ignoring, suppressing or hyping pre-war intelligence, Kerry said that Democrats are “fighting together now to restore truth to the discussion between Americans.”

Had the truth been known that Saddam did not have WMD, Congress would not have authorised the war. But the “Group Think” created a spiral of silence and most of the nation, including Congress, submitted to the will of the President.

As Kerry promises openness in national decision-making, in another era Jimmy Carter too had promised transparency to the administration, after the long dark nightmare created by Nixon and the Watergate affair. This is reactive politics.

While Kerry talked of restoring “hope to families who are struggling to make ends meet,” his running mate, John Edwards, talked of small town values, equally dear to Republicans – “faith, family, opportunity, responsibility, trying to make sure that everybody gets a chance to do what they’re capable of doing.”

It seems both parties are raiding each other’s campaign ideas and coming closer to the centre where the swing voters are. There are about 10 to 15 swing states where voters are still undecided and it is for their minds and souls that Republicans and Democrats are spending million of dollars in campaign ads.

Republicans are attacking Kerry’s choice of his vice-presidential running mate whose political experience is limited to being in the Senate for about a term. Compared to the grim-faced Vice-President, Dick Cheney, Senator Edwards looks boyishly sunny and cheerful.

It would be interesting to see how they debate each other. Years of humdrum experience in politics are not necessarily an advantage.

George W Bush, who was Texas Governor before seeking presidential election, did not have much experience in foreign affairs and national security. But he rose to the challenge and 9/11 brought out the best in him.

John F Kennedy, in spite of his youthfulness, handled the Cuban missile crisis with great courage and superb diplomacy.

Experience is not so important as is the quality of a leader’s character. The political system has a reservoir of diplomatic and national security expertise that can generate suitable responses in any emergency.

But ultimately it is the quality of judgment of the man who sits in the White House or one who might succeed him in an unforeseen eventuality that matters.

It matters a lot because what he does or does not do would have global repercussions and from that point of view, although it is the American voter who decides the election, the whole world has a stake as to who occupies the White House for the next four years.

Given that terrorism and Iraq continue to dominate the American imagination, what American voters are looking for is the competence to deal with the problem.

Ralph Nader, a consumer advocate and a political spoiler, who is seeking presidential election as an independent candidate, said the other day that Iraq is the swing state for Bush. But that is equally true for Kerry.

Having gotten into the mess in Iraq, the decisive question before the swing voters is who best could get the country out of it without losing the war on terrorism. That will determine the presidential election.

ND Batra is Professor of Communications, Norwich University, Vermont. - Ed.

The StatesmanPublication Date : 2004-07-14