Nanolaw with Daughter: a parable of a litigatory future

Paul Raven @ 01-06-2011

Via the indispensable TechDirt, here’s a short fictional excursion into the near future by Paul “Ftrain” Ford. If you’ve ever wondered whereabouts the rising tide of petty litigations – copyright breach buckshot, nebulous class-action suits, mass-target John Doe patent infringements, libel tourism, the list goes on – might beach us, Ford paints an all-too-believable picture of today’s tomorrow.

On a Sunday morning before her soccer practice, not long after my daughter’s tenth birthday, she and I sat down on the couch with our tablets and I taught her to respond to lawsuits on her own. I told her to read the first message.

“It says it’s in French,” she said. “Do I translate?”

“Does it have a purple flag on it?”

“No,” she said.

“You don’t actually have to worry about it unless it has a purple flag.”

She hesitated. “Can I read it?” she asked.

“If you want to read it go ahead.”

She switched the screen from French to English and read out the results: “’Notice from the Democratic Republic of Congo related to the actions of King Leopold II.’”

This was what I’d been avoiding. So much evil in the world and why did she need to know about all of it, at once? But for months she’d asked—begged—to answer her own suits. I’d told her to wait, to stop trying to grow up so fast, you’ll have your whole lifetime to get sued. Until finally she said: “When I’m ten? I can do it when I’m ten?” And I’d said, “sure, after you’re ten.” Somehow that had seemed far off. I had willed it to be far off.

“Honey,” I explained, “you’ll get a lot of those kinds. What happened is, a long time ago, the country Belgium took over this country Congo and killed a lot of people and made everyone slaves. The people who are descendants of those slaves, their government gave them the right to ask other people for damages.”

“I didn’t do anything. I thought you had to do something.”

Where do you start? Litigation-flow tariff policy? Post-colonial genocide reparations microsuits? Is there a book somewhere, Telling Your Daughter About Nanolaw?

“You know,” I asked, “how you have to be careful about giving away information?”

She did. We talk about that almost every day.

Go read it all; won’t take you ten minutes.


Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl looking alarmingly predictive

Paul Raven @ 27-05-2010

Some of the ideas in Paolo Bacigalupi’s excellent Nebula-winning debut novel The Windup Girl are already alarmingly close to reality. In a future world where all the oil is long gone, all energy has to come from food as processed by animals, human or otherwise; when your food crops start dying, it’s a race against time to cook up new genetic variants that can resist the rapid mutations of virulent viruses and parasites… which means big money for whoever has a patent on the right genetic sequences, and perpetual debt (or intellectual property piracy) for everyone else.

A speculative future, certainly, and one that I’m pretty sure isn’t meant to be taken quite as literally as some reviewers and critics have done thus far… but there’s a definite undercurrent of classic science fictional “if this goes on…” in The Windup Girl, and things are going on. Just the other week we mentioned that poppy blight in Afghanistan. Now, via Paul McAuley, we hear that South Africa has been invaded by a new wheat fungus which could easily spread into south Asia and the Middle East, and from there onwards

“Eventually it will reach North America and Europe,” says Ronnie Coffman, a plant-breeding scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He warns that in the next few years, farmers across the world will need to replace up to 90% of the current wheat varieties with new, resistant varieties to ensure crops are protected against the fungus.

That sound you can hear? Monsanto’s board of directors rubbing their fat hands together in delight.

I’m of the opinion that the “Frankenstein foods” panic about GM crops is reactionary foolishness, and that we badly need engineered crops to support the world’s population… but I have serious concerns about incumbent intellectual property laws, not to mention the sort of genetic tampering (e.g. neutered seedstock – it’ll grow, but you can’t grow more without paying up for more viable seeds) that could turn that urgent need into a captive-market profit margin that’ll make the fossil fuel multinationals look like corner-store philanthropists.

That’s very much a worst-case scenario, of course, but forewarned is fore-armed… and Bacigalupi’s novel (which I really must get round to writing a full review of when my schedule allows) is a timely allegory, as well as a very gripping read. Go buy a copy.


A new use for social networking technology: examining patents

Edward Willett @ 23-02-2009

patent drawings The possibilities (beyond merely sharing the latest embarrassing YouTube video or cat-based humour) inherent in today’s social networking technology are just beginning to be explored. A group of researchers in Pennsylvania suggests one possible use is to help deal with the enormous backlog in patent applications (a backlog that directly impacts how quickly new technology makes its way into society) by helping to identify what’s known as “prior art” (which, as Wikipedia–which seems a particular apt source for this item*–explains, “constitutes all information that has been made available to the public in any form before a given date that might be relevant to a patent’s claims of originality. If an invention has been described in prior art, a patent on that invention is not valid.”). (Via Science Blog.)

“The burgeoning backlog of patent applications at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), several hundred thousand in any year, has created an urgent need for Office reform,” the team explains, “Review of related application reference material, or prior art, is a necessary but time-consuming step in the patent process.” If prior art can be identified early in the assessment process then a patent claim can be discarded quickly and the patent examiner move on to the next claim.

Peo and colleagues explain how the USPTO initiated a pilot project that uses social networking software to allow groups of volunteer review experts to upload prior art references, participate in discussion forums, rate other user submissions and add research references to pending applications. The aim was to allow the actual patent examiners to focus on reviewing the most relevant prior art associated with any particular submission and so streamline the overall application process.

The pilot project, Peer to Patent, has proven successful enough (here’s its one-year report) that similar approaches are being investigated by the UK Intellectual Property Office and the European Patent Office.

*Particularly apt because there’s an unofficial patent review site called Wikipatents.

(Image: Drawing from Canadian patent awarded to my grandfather-in-law)

[tags]inventions,social networking,patents,Wikis[/tags]


Clean serene blood-streams – anti-drug antibodies patented

Paul Raven @ 18-03-2008

MDMA-molecular-diagram New Scientist reports that a group of addiction researchers have filed a patent on a method for producing antibodies that can clean the bloodstream of “designer drugs” from the amphetamine family.

It’s not yet been tested in humans, of course, but the implication is that injections of these antibodies could eradicate the chemicals in question from a patients body, which would doubtless be of great assistance in withdrawal programs. [image from erowid.org]

But as we all know, the street finds its own use for things. Once stuff like this hits the black market, I think there’ll be a lot less people worrying about mandatory drug testing in the workplace.


Patents revoked on AIDS drugs

Paul Raven @ 30-01-2008

Just a quick bit of good news: four patents of the key AIDS/HIV drug tenofovir disoproxil fumarate have been revoked on grounds of prior art. This is great news for developing nations where lower prices on these drugs could save thousands of lives. [Via Slashdot]

Of course, Gilead (the company whose patents have been revoked) are vowing to fight their corner; after all, life is a wonderful thing, but it must always come second to profit.