March 8, 1999 -- Newsletter #18

By Joe Burns

G O O D I E S T O G O ! (tm)
March 8, 1999 -- Newsletter #18
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Please visit http://www.htmlgoodies.com
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Greetings, Weekend Silicon Warriors...

First off, let me say Hooray! for my father who, at 68, will be taking his first mid-term examination in over 30 years. He finally broke down and took a beginning computer class at the local university. He wanted to know what the heck his son did all that time while typing on the computer. No doubt, he'll pull an A+.

Now to my topic...

Back in the early 1950s, a disc jockey named Alan Freed was working on-air at a radio station in Cleveland, Ohio. He called his air shift the Moondoggie Show. One day a group of singers came in to perform and the front man told Freed, off the air, that his music was like "rocking and rolling." Freed picked up on the idea and thought he had invented the term "Rock and Roll." Although the term had been used for years, Freed went ahead and tried to copyright the term.

He was turned down.

The funny thing is that he wasn't turned down because he didn't think up the term, he was turned down because you can't copyright a phrase or small grouping of words, like a title. Had the concept he was pitching contained more text, he might have gotten it.

"So what?" you say. The So What is that you may not know that companies are asking for, and getting, patents on programming that's used on the Internet.

Did you know that earlier this month Microsoft was awarded a patent on the structure of Cascading Style Sheets? It was, and it really set off the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), a nonprofit group working to standardize the Web.

Microsoft is a member of the Consortium, and as such, is obliged to tell the other members when it is going to go after a patent. It didn't, claiming simple oversight. It has, however, said it will not enforce the patent and will license the structure of Cascading Style Sheets freely.

Now, don't nuts and start screaming about how Microsoft should be dismantled and all the parts spread over the deep blue sea. They aren't the only ones doing it. If the U.S. Patent Office keeps offering awards to any level of format of programming, then what does this mean for you and me, the Weekend Silicon Warriors? Can I sit down and design a Web page myself or must I now put into the code that the Style Sheet structure I am using is owned by one company, and that embedded applet structure is owned by another?

I hope not.

Even so, I see it and hear about it all the time. Someone will write a page that has nothing new in the coding, put a copyright on it, then ask me how to go about suing their friend because the person took part of their code. If it's at this level, think of what the bent is at the corporate level.

I can see it now. Major corporations will send out "handy, easy-to-use" copy-and-paste registration codes to all Web sites, asking that the code be placed in the source and "Give us a link if you feel like it." Web sites with credits. Unbelievable.

The concept makes me nervous, because the thing that is being patented is an idea, rather than a new kind of shovel or toothbrush. Who's to say how different something must be for it to be a new idea? What makes your idea one that I can't think? What if I truly come up with an idea that I know is totally new (remember the meepzork!) and you've already thought of it? Who gets the patent? Me, because I took a cab to the patent office rather than walking, like you?

The better question is this: How can we ask for newer and better stuff from companies (who need to pay employees to create it), yet expect the information they create to be free and available to anyone, without a profit being taken by the company that paid the employee to create the software? Think before you answer. What if you were the employee?

Maybe you'd rethink the $3 fee asked by the Patent and Trademark office.

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And that's that. Thanks for reading through another newsletter! I'm glad you take the time.

Joe Burns, Ph.D.

And Remember: A mosquito has 47 teeth.

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