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Definition of "generally used computing hardware"

Definition of "generally used computing hardware"

Posted Nov 7, 2012 11:56 UTC (Wed) by coriordan (guest, #7544)
In reply to: Let’s Limit the Effect of Software Patents, Since We Can’t Eliminate Them (Wired) by dlang
Parent article: Let’s Limit the Effect of Software Patents, Since We Can’t Eliminate Them (Wired)

> What is "generally used computing hardware"?
>
> Here's where I think the attention needs to be paid.

I'm thinking the same.

But I'd go for a broad definition. The PC might be extinct in 10 years. 95% of the population might be doing all their computing on watches, phones, glasses, and other wearables.

Maybe courts would interpret "generally used" as referring to whatever hardware people generally use to run software, so it would include the things in my previous paragraph. But it's better to not leave this down to chance. We should find a wording that makes this meaning clearer, IMO.


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Definition of "generally used computing hardware"

Posted Nov 7, 2012 21:02 UTC (Wed) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

If you just define 'generally used computing hardware" to be thigns that people run software on, that will include toasters and other similarly bizarre items.

If you define it in terms of ABI documentation and ability to load their own software on them, you then put manufacturers into a corner

they can either

1. document the hardware and make it so that others can run software on it, making their software running on the device immune to patent lawsuits

or

2. keep their hardware secret and locked down and be liable for any patent lawsuits against their software.

In other words, defining things this way not only eliminates patent claims against all opensource software, it also gives manufacturers a strong incentive to document their hardware sufficiently that opensource software can be made to run on it.

For things like video cards, you would have the following situation

The NVIDIA drivers would be vulnerable to patents.

The Raspberry Pi GPU firmware could be vulnerable to patents (I don't know if they have the info needed to write stuff to run on the GPU available or not, the source of the firmware blob is definitely not available), but the Pi drivers would not be as the interface to the firmware is published.

The ATI drivers would not be vulnerable to patents as the ABI for the cards is published

Apple devices would be vulnerable to patents as they are locked down with undocumented hardware and the owner is prevented from installing new software on them.

Google Nexus devices would not be vulnerable as they are documented.

Other Android devices would only be vulnerable in their drivers, and even then, only to the extent that they have 'secret' ABIs

book readers would be vulnerable as they are locked down

Game consoles would be vulnerable as they are all locked down

All of the above sounds very reasonable to me :-)

what about running VLC on an iThing?

Posted Nov 8, 2012 11:21 UTC (Thu) by coriordan (guest, #7544) [Link]

You could be right. I'm just still thinking it through...

What about the stuff in application space? Patent problems in driver space are a small minority (although surely growing due to video and other acceleration in hardware).

If someone gets a completely closed iThing and runs VLC, should that person be safe or not?

I'd say yes, and that the iThing is "generally used computing hardware". But if the hardware has to be documented, then the person running VLC on an iThing wouldn't be safe.

I think people should be able to run VLC everywhere without patent risk, and that whatever falls outside the "generally used computing hardware" definition should only be liable insofar as the act is specific to that non-general hardware.

what about running VLC on an iThing?

Posted Nov 8, 2012 19:17 UTC (Thu) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

good point

I guess we would need to make it something along the lines of if the software only uses published interfaces (be they software or hardware), it's safe, but if it uses 'secret' interfaces, it's not.

so something written to run on a iThing would be safe, but the OS for the iThing would not be.

And Rockbox on the iPod nano 2?

Posted Nov 9, 2012 15:40 UTC (Fri) by coriordan (guest, #7544) [Link]

What about the iPod nano 2 interfaces? They were secret (encrypted even, IIRC), but after a few years the RockBox guys figured them out and there are now free software systems for those devices. Does Rockbox's work make the iPod's interfaces public?

(If not then Rockbox would have patent risk.)

I also wonder if a library cover secret interfaces with open ones, thus creating a loophole in the law. (This is only possible for certain definitions of "secret".)

And Rockbox on the iPod nano 2?

Posted Nov 9, 2012 19:59 UTC (Fri) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

> Does Rockbox's work make the iPod's interfaces public?

No, If it did it would make everything on the iPod safe.

I would say that Rockbox documenting what they _think_ the interfaces are should protect Rockbox, but it would not protect Apple software (after all, there is no way of knowing is Rockbox got things right, or just 'right enough to work')

As for a library to hide secret interfaces. As long as the open ones are documented and can be used by others, I don't have a big problem with this 'loophole'. Either the library makes enough available for people to use it to write other software (in which case it is functionally equivalent to the 'secret' interface), or it doesn't, (in which case it can't be used for things that want to take advantage of the 'secret' commands)

I'll note that I am one of the people who doesn't consider a system non-free just because it has loadable firmware blobs.

Probably a bad gamble

Posted Nov 9, 2012 21:30 UTC (Fri) by coriordan (guest, #7544) [Link]

...but then the Rockbox developers and users (me) have patent risk.

The API approach is a gamble, but I think it's probably a bad gamble.

With the transition from PC/Laptop to carryables/wearables, I think we're heading into a decade where a lot of free software users will be putting free software on their devices against the manufacturer's wishes.

Offering patent protection in return for documentation probably isn't enough. If software patents were that big an issue for the hardware manufacturers, they would be working on their own campaign to get that protection without having to document their interfaces. The current relative silence on the issue suggests it's not that motivating, so the gamble is risky.

(That said, the general v. special distinction also has problems. What's "special" about an mp3 player? It just does a subset of what my PC does. Is "special" supposed to refer to medical devices? How do we make that clear in a legal text?)

Probably a bad gamble

Posted Nov 9, 2012 22:48 UTC (Fri) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

given that the librarian of Congress just denied the right to jailbreak tablets because it would have included the ability to jailbreak e-readers as well, I don't think that you are going to have any luck trying to get patent protection for running software on such devices.

That being said, in the case of Rockbox, all the software that actually had a real potential for being hit by patents is going to be the same on all devices. It's only the bootloader and drivers that will be special for the iPod.

Probably a bad gamble

Posted Nov 10, 2012 14:53 UTC (Sat) by coriordan (guest, #7544) [Link]

If Rockbox is to be ok (except bootloader and drivers), the proposal should say "a program *that can be effectively run* on generally used computing hardware".

But I'm not sure that that's broad enough. It could leave a problem for video acceleration in drivers. I'd stick with looking for ways to ensure that mp3 players are wholly included in "generally used computing hardware".

The terrible decision about tablets does prove that legislators can make anti-citizen decisions, but the goal (enforce companies' DRM against computer users) shouldn't bind them to making bad decisions on patent questions.

Probably a bad gamble

Posted Nov 10, 2012 23:05 UTC (Sat) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

> the proposal should say "a program *that can be effectively run* on generally used computing hardware".

why do you need to include the word 'effectively' here? that is subjective.

> It could leave a problem for video acceleration in drivers.

I'm actually Ok with that being a problem.

A closed source driver with closed ABIs like NVIDIA should be a problem

A closed source driver with open ABIs like ATI is Ok with me. I will try to avoid using it and instead use the open source driver that will be written instead.

A open 'shim' driver with open ABIs like the Raspberry Pi is also Ok with me. Everyone uses the same ABI and any 'secret stuff' is in the firmware.

being able to replace the firmware and have the ABI from the firmware to the hardware be open is even better.

> I'd stick with looking for ways to ensure that mp3 players are wholly included in "generally used computing hardware".

I wish you good luck with that, however in the current political climate, I think you will run into the same problem that they had with tablets including e-book readers


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