31 March 2008

Beware, Inventors Worldwide

Beware, Inventors Worldwide
Shun-Kuo Su 03.18.08, 6:00 AM ET
Many Americans probably assume that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awards patents exclusively to American inventors. But in 2006, almost half of all patents granted by the U.S. were awarded to foreigners.

Why so much foreign interest in the American system? U.S. patents are renowned for being the world's strongest form of intellectual property protection.

It's therefore puzzling that the U.S. Congress is looking to radically change this system. Given America's growing concern about its image abroad, U.S. leaders would be making a grave error undermining their patent system. It stands as a key component of America's soft power.

What is Congress looking to do?

First, it would replace America's unique "first-to-invent" rule with a "first-to-file" system. Under "first-to-invent," the first person to actually invent a product is granted a patent. "First-to-file" merely awards the first person to arrive at the patent office.

"First-to-file" stacks the deck against individuals and small firms, as only large corporations have the legal and financial resources to navigate the patent bureaucracy effectively.

Second, the bill would eliminate patent-holders' protection against frivolous lawsuits. A cumbersome post-grant review process would be the new method of adjudication, allowing patents to be challenged almost indefinitely.

These and other changes in the proposed legislation would cause inventors' costs to skyrocket. Patent values would erode as their legal stature fall into question.

That uncertainty spells trouble for the future of research-intensive innovation. Currently, foreigners are driving much of the innovation passing through the Patent Office. Inventors the world over depend on the U.S. to protect the intellectual property that drives their entrepreneurial ambitions.

Without its strong patent system, the American market would look significantly less appealing--and American influence would wane considerably.

My home country of Taiwan, for example, relies heavily on the American patent system. In 2006, Taiwanese inventors edged out their U.S. counterparts, nabbing 3.3 patents per 10,000 inhabitants, compared with 3.1 per 10,000 in the U.S.

And it is not just Taiwanese inventors flocking to the U.S. Patent Office. It's the busiest patent authority in the world; of the nearly 450,000 patent applications received by the U.S. Patent Office in 2006, about 210,000 were filed by foreigners.

Weakening the U.S. patent system would damage an important source of foreign goodwill toward America. The ramifications would be especially damaging to important allies.

Even more distressing, the U.S. Congress seems strangely unconcerned that large-scale counterfeiters and copycat artists would profit handsomely under the new system. Such companies, often wholly or partly state-sponsored, thrive on weak protection of intellectual property rights.

The Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) in Thailand is a great example. In late 2006 and early 2007, the state-owned company violated the patents of three popular drugs: the anti-AIDS medicines Kaletra and Efavirenz and the heart-disease drug Plavix. Thailand's government blessed the move.

It's likely that organizations like the GPO will be even more brazen in seizing intellectual property if patent protections are weakened.

Other copycat companies have already said they will do as much. "Seeking invalidation of patents is likely to be a part of the patent strategy that Indian generics companies may follow in the U.S.," promised the secretary general of the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance.

Such a coordinated attack on American patents would be devastating to inventors--and to consumers who rely on their products.

In deciding whether to pass the Patent Reform Act, Congress must choose whether it wants to protect the world's most productive and innovative minds or prop up manufacturers whose only contributions are made through imitation.

The choice should be easy.

Mr. Shun-Kuo Su served as Majority Whip of Taiwan's Provincial Assembly from 1977 to 1980. He also served as a professor of law at the Chinese Culture University. He is currently chairman of a nonprofit organization promoting better ties between Taiwan and the U.S.

10 March 2008

Coming Soon: Nothing Between You and Your Machine

Coming Soon: Nothing Between You and Your Machine
Published: March 9, 2008
Menlo Park, Calif.

IT has been more than two decades since Scotty tried to use a computer mouse as a microphone to control a Macintosh in “Star Trek IV.”

Since then, personal computer users have continued to live under the tyranny of the mice, windows, icons and pull-down menus originally invented at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the 1970s and popularized by Apple and Microsoft in the next decade.

Last year, however, the arrival of the Nintendo Wii and the Apple iPhone began to break down the logjam in technological innovation for the way humans interact with computers.

Both devices extend the idea of directly controlling objects on the screen and blending that ability with visually compelling physics software that brings computer screens to life in new, immersive ways. With a Wii, a wave of the hand can slam a tennis ball in cyberspace; with the iPhone, a flick of a finger can slide a photograph across the screen like paper on a table.

The idea of directly manipulating information on a computer screen is almost as old computer graphics terminals, going back at least to 1963, to Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad drawing system he created at M.I.T. for his Ph.D. thesis. Since then, a thriving scientific and engineering discipline has sprung up around systems that bridge what was originally called the man-machine interface. There has been a broad exploration of pointing devices, alternatives to keyboards for entering information, voice-recognition technologies, and even sensors that capture and interact with human brain waves.

What is new is a convergence of more powerful and less expensive computer hardware and an inspired set of mostly younger software designers who came of age well past the advent of the original graphical user interface paradigm of the 1970s and ’80s.

This new generation is “mostly under 25,” said Joy Mountford, who until last month was vice president for design innovation at an advanced development group at Yahoo. “They come from a world of fluid media, and they multitask at an extraordinary level.”

One intriguing example of this new immersive approach to Web navigation is the PicLens software from Cooliris, a 10-person start-up based here.

This software plug-in for Web browsers tries to make it possible to navigate, find and share information by directly browsing the images, video and other digital media that are increasingly common on the Web.

PicLens currently offers a small icon cue inset in each Web photo that lets users know they are at a site like Facebook, Google or Flickr that can be browsed with the software. Clicking on the icon transports the user away from the conventional page-oriented Web into an immersive browsing environment.

The software does away with the browser frame and gives the user the effect of flying through a three-dimensional space that feels like an unending hallway of images. In the future, the Cooliris designers plan to make it possible to browse text and video as well.

“I’ve wondered for a long time why the computer interface hasn’t changed from 20 years ago,” said Austin Shoemaker, a former Apple Computer software engineer and now chief technology officer of Cooliris. “People should think of a computer interface less as a tool and more as a extension of themselves or as extension of their mind.”

Some of these ideas can be traced back to the 1990s, to work done at the M.I.T. Media Lab. In 2002, a former student there, John Underkoffler, brought the idea of direct manipulation to life in “Minority Report,” the science-fiction movie. (In the movie, Tom Cruise interacts with a wall-size transparent computer display directly with his hands.) More recently, the idea of a multitouch display, where images could be moved or scaled by direct touch, was brought to life both by Jeff Han, a computer science researcher at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University and by W. Daniel Hillis and Bran Ferren, researchers at the consulting firm Applied Minds, who developed a “touch table” world map.

The transition to more immersive displays is happening in part because of more powerful computer hardware, but also because of an explosion of more powerful programming tools. These tools offer visual effects that were once within the grasp of only the most skillful programmers to a wide audience with only basic skills.

“The old paradigm is breaking down,” said Paul Mercer, senior director of software at Palm Inc. “It used to be that you needed to be a visionary and technologist like Michelangelo, but we’re turning that corner.”

INDEED, the more powerful graphics-oriented software has spilled over into the creation of palettes for a new generation of software-oriented artists. One new programming language, Processing, is an extension of Sun’s Java designed specifically for students, artists, designers, researchers and hobbyists who are interested in programming images, animations and interactions. It has been used extensively at “Design and the Elastic Mind,” a digital art exhibition now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Voice, too, is finally beginning to play a significant role as an interface tool in a new generation of consumer-oriented wireless handsets. Many technologists now believe that hunting and pecking on the tiny keyboards of cellphones and P.D.A.’s will quickly give way to voice commands that will return map, text and other data displayed visually on small screens.

“We’re on the verge of creating something as compelling as touch, except with voice,” said Mike McCue, general manager of the Tellme subsidiary of Microsoft.

The common theme of all of the technologies will be a new kind of immersive experience.

“If you’re looking for what’s next after the Web browser, this is it,” said Bill Joy, a partner at the Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, the venture firm that is funding Cooliris.

06 March 2008

Whistle-Blower: Feds Have a Backdoor Into Wireless Carrier

Whistle-Blower: Feds Have a Backdoor Into Wireless Carrier -- Congress Reacts
By Kevin Poulsen March 06, 2008 | 8:15:00 PMCategories: Spooks Gone Wild

A U.S. government office in Quantico, Virginia, has direct, high-speed access to a major wireless carrier's systems, exposing customers' voice calls, data packets and physical movements to uncontrolled surveillance, according to a computer security consultant who says he worked for the carrier in late 2003.
"What I thought was alarming is how this carrier ended up essentially allowing a third party outside their organization to have unfettered access to their environment," Babak Pasdar, now CEO of New York-based Bat Blue told Threat Level. "I wanted to put some access controls around it; they vehemently denied it. And when I wanted to put some logging around it, they denied that."
Pasdar won't name the wireless carrier in question, but his claims are nearly identical to unsourced allegations made in a federal lawsuit filed in 2006 against four phone companies and the U.S. government for alleged privacy violations. That suit names Verizon Wireless as the culprit.
Pasdar has executed a seven-page affidavit for the nonprofit Government Accountability Project in Washington, which on Tuesday began circulating the document (.pdf), along with talking points (.doc), to congressional staffers hashing out a Republican proposal to grant retroactive legal immunity to phone companies who cooperated in the warrantless wiretapping of Americans.
According to his affidavit, Pasdar tumbled to the surveillance superhighway in September 2003, when he led a "Rapid Deployment" team hired to revamp security on the carrier's internal network. He noticed that the carrier's officials got squirrelly when he asked about a mysterious "Quantico Circuit" -- a 45 megabit/second DS-3 line linking its most sensitive network to an unnamed third party.
Quantico, Virginia, is home to a Marine base. But perhaps more relevantly, it's also the center of the FBI's electronic surveillance operations.
"The circuit was tied to the organization's core network," Pasdar writes in his affidavit. "It had access to the billing system, text messaging, fraud detection, web site, and pretty much all the systems in the data center without apparent restrictions."
The 2006 lawsuit (.pdf), which is suspended pending an appeals court ruling, describes a similar arrangement, naming Verizon.
Because the data center was a clearing house for all Verizon Wireless calls, the transmission line provided the Quantico recipient direct access to all content and all information concerning the origin and termination of telephone calls placed on the Verizon Wireless network as well as the actual content of calls.
The transmission line was unprotected by any firewall and would have enabled the recipient on the Quantico end to have unfettered access to Verizon Wireless customer records, data and information. Any customer databases, records and information could be downloaded from this center.
That doesn't mean Pasdar's affidavit confirms the claims in the lawsuit. He acknowledges speaking with the attorneys on that lawsuit before it was filed, so he may be the source in that complaint as well. But he insists he did not name Verizon or any other phone company to the lawyers.
"I don't know if I have a smoking gun, but I'm certainly fairly confident in what I saw and I'm convinced it was being leveraged in a less than forthright and upfront manner," Pasdar says.
Verizon spokesman Peter Thonis says he can't confirm or deny a Quantico arrangement, or comment on whether Pasdar did contract work for the company.
"What you're talking about sounds as if it would be classified and involving national security, so I wouldn't be able to find out the facts," Thonis writes in an e-mail.
Postscript: In response to some of the comments here and elsewhere: No, it's not CALEA. CALEA requires phone companies to give the FBI real time access to call content and call detail information on specific targets when presented with a warrant. It does not oblige them to give the FBI or anyone else direct unmonitored access to switches, billing systems or databases.
For more on the FBI's CALEA network, check out Ryan's article on the subject from last year.
Update: Democratic leaders in the House are taking Pasdar's claims seriously. John Dingell, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce committee, wrote a Dear Colleague letter (.pdf) today, addressing the issue.
Mr. Pasdar's allegations are not new to the Committee on Energy and Commerce, but our attempts to verify and investigate them further have been blocked at every turn by the Administration. Moreover, the whistleblower's allegations echo those in an affidavit filed by Mark Klein, a retired AT&T technician, in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit against AT&T. ...
Because legislators should not vote before they have sufficient facts, we continue to insist that all House Members be given access to the necessary information, including the relevant documents underlying this matter, to make an informed decision on their vote. After reviewing the documentation and these latest allegations, Members should be given adequate time to properly evaluate the separate question of retroactive immunity."

04 March 2008

Machinists Urge U.S. to Halt Technology Transfers to China

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) is calling on the U.S. Department of Commerce to suspend a new program that allows companies in China to gain expedited access to sensitive U.S. aerospace technology, including telecommunication and composites technologies with potential military applications.

"It is naive to assume that relaxing export restrictions on sensitive aerospace technology does not represent a significant threat to U.S. jobs, companies and communities," says IAM International President Tom Buffenbarger. "It is equally naive to ignore the national security implications of such technology transfers to China."

In a letter to the Under Secretary of the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security, Buffenbarger took issue with one company in China that was recently approved for such expedited technology transfers under the Commerce Department's Validated End-User program.

"The approval of one of these companies, Boeing Hexcel AVIC I Joint venture will involve work on the Boeing 787 program that could have been performed by U.S. workers," says Buffenbarger. "We find it very difficult to believe that your actions are good for U.S. workers or the U.S. economy."

The Boeing Hexcel venture represents additional national security concerns, according to a report by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, an independent research foundation that monitors the spread of arms technology. "Reducing control on exports to such companies increases the risk that American goods will help China improve its armed forces, and that American goods will be sent illicitly to Syria or Iran." The Wisconsin Report also notes that Boeing and Hexcel have been cited in the past for multiple violations of export controls.

The IAM is among the nation's largest labor unions, representing nearly 720,000 members in manufacturing, transportation, shipbuilding and defense related industries. Click http://www.wisconsinproject.org/pubs/reports/2007/inchinawetrust.pdf to view the Wisconsin Project Report. For more information about the IAM, visit: www.goiam.org.