Monday, 31 October 2011

Trick or Treat, Extortion and Patents

Tonight, the 31st of October, many children will be out "trick or treating". While some may call me a grouch, I find the whole concept rather disturbing.

Trick or treat is very simple. The child knocks on your door and offers you a choice. Either give them a "treat" (money or sweets), or they will perform a "trick" (something unspecified, but probably something very annoying and messy).

What other words and phrases do we have that describe this modus operandi:

"Money with menaces"

"Protection racket"



So, around the world, thousands of parents are happily letting their child go out and blackmail/extort people in their own homes. Personally, I find the parenting aspect of this deeply disturbing - teaching children how to use extortion to get what they want.

So, whats the link to patents?

Well, patents have become simply another form of extortion.

Company X goes along to company Y and says "look, I have a great wodge of patents here, pay me lots of money or I'll cause you lots of grief". Its simply trick or treat in corporate clothes.

(Lawsuits, at least in the US and UK, tend to be won by the party with the most money, not the party who is "right". Thus, for most companies the extortion threat is generally strong enough to make a smaller company pay the protection money.)

The effects of this are causing terrible grief to this industry. Right now everyone is suing everyone. Well apart from IBM, and to some degree Microsoft, who appear to have a big enough wodge of patents to waft around that they can scare everyone else into submission. Heck, IBM even has a patent on the "business process" of extortion by patent.

The situation is now at a point where I would suggest the following advice holds to entrepeuners.

Make sure that your startup is either relatively small and insignificant so that it doesn't attract attention (if you have no money its not worth blackmailing you), or is so wildly successful that you can afford to pay the extortion/protection money.

(In case you were wondering, Google is the classic case of a company that became wildly successful and wealthy but didn't submit to extortion. And one look at the mess of lawsuits it, and related Android partners, are suffering from shows how bad it can get, such as Microsoft earning more from Android through extortion than it does from its own phone OS. If you know patents and want a job, Google has lots on offer.)

Viewed in this way, it should be clear why patents are not "protecting the little guy" or "promoting innovation". They simply reward longevity and ability to be scary.

So tonight I encourage those parents amongst my readers to not allow your children to go out and learn how to extort/blackmail. Perhaps in 20 years time corporates will be a little better as result.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Transparency in action

Some days I think I have infinite patience. Today was a day I was reminded that I don't.

Here is what Oracle said in the JCP submission for Project Lambda (November 2010). Interspersed is what has actually happened (non contentious points snipped):

2.14 Please describe the anticipated working model for the Expert Group working on developing this specification.

A publicly readable mailing list for expert group communication will be the primary working model.

The expert group mailing list is not publicly readable. This has effectively created a 'them and us' environment where no rationale can be seen and no real input can be provided.

2.15 Provide detailed answers to the transparency checklist, making sure to include URLs as appropriate:
- The Expert Group business is regularly reported on a publicly readable alias.
We intend this to be the case.

Expert group business has occasionally been reported to the public lambda-dev list. However, feedback could in no way be described as "regular". Today (the straw that finally broke the camels back of my patience) I found that the most likely syntax for method references was being touted in an IBM developer works article without any input from the main public mailing list at all - I'm sorry but you cannot talk about transparency and then ignore the only vaguely transparent element in the system in key decisions.

- The public can read/write to a wiki for my JSR.
Rather than a wiki which the Expert Group must take time out to visit, we intend to implement a pair of mailing lists following the approach of JSR 294 and JSR 330. First, Expert Group business will be carried out on a mailing list dedicated to Expert Group members. Second, an "observer" mailing list which anyone may join will receive the traffic of the Expert Group list. The observer list allows the public to follow Expert Group business, and is writable to allow the public to make comments for other observers to see and make further comment on. Expert Group members are under no obligation to join the observer list and partake in public discussion. In addition to these lists we will maintain a private Expert-Group-only list for administrative and other non-technical traffic.

Nope. No observer list with public archives. And obviously not writeable. All meaningful discussions are in private and hidden.

- I read and respond to posts on the discussion board for my JSR on
In lieu of tracking the discussion board, and in light of the considerable public attention that the observer list is likely to receive, the Specification Lead (or his designates) will read the observer list and respond directly as appropriate.

Obviously this fails too.

- There is an issue-tracker for my JSR that the public can read.
We intend this to be the case.

Anyone seen an issue tracker? Not me.

Now, I've been patient on this as I know privately some of the reasons why there is no transparency. But frankly enough is enough. If the management team cared enough about this they would have escalated the priority of this sufficiently by now to have removed the roadblocks.

After all, not even members of the JCP Executive Committee get to see what is going on, as per the comments for Java 7:

On 2011-07-18 Keil, Werner commented:
... want to emphasize again the concern about intransparent ways this umbrella JSR and some of the underlying EGs have worked.

Hoping greater transparency in the spirit of and also more satisfactory licensing terms follow with Java 8 and beyond.
On 2011-07-16 London Java Community commented:
We note that the archives for some of the Expert Groups that comprise this JSR have not been made public. It is most regrettable that this did not happen prior to this being put to final vote.

We trust that no further platform JSRs will be submitted without full access to EG archives - we would be very unlikely to support any such JSR.


However you look at it, transparency simply isn't happening with key JCP Java SE projects. (The same issues afflict other Java SE projects)

But don't worry, its all going to get magically better! Oracle recently signed up for more transparency in JSR-348. Is anyone out there still willing to believe its actually going to happen?

Monday, 17 October 2011

IANA running time-zone database

This is a quick note to alert readers to the fact that IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, has taken over the running of the time-zone database. The new home is at IANA.

The formal announcement is as follows:

ICANN to Manage Time Zone Database

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) today took over operation of an Internet Time Zone Database that is used by a number of major computer systems.

ICANN agreed to manage the database after receiving a request from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

The database contains time zone code and data that computer programs and operating systems such as Unix, Linux, Java, and Oracle rely on to determine the correct time for a given location. Modifications to the database occur frequently throughout the year.

"The time zone database is used by a large number of commercial operating systems and the software applications," said Russ Housely, chairman of the IETF. "Incorrect time zone information will impact many everyday activities, including meeting and conference call coordination, airplane and train schedules, physical package delivery notices, and astronomical observatories."

For nearly three decades, the TZ Database had been maintained by a group of dedicated volunteers, in particular, Arthur David Olson at the US National Institutes of Health. Olson coordinated the group, managed the data, and created a platform for their release. Olson's announced retirement prompted the IETF to turn to ICANN to ensure continued operation of the database.

"The Time Zone Database provides an essential service on the Internet and keeping it operational falls within ICANN's mission of maintaining a stable and dependable Internet," said Akram Atallah, ICANN's Chief Operating Officer.

This good news should hopefully provide a more secure legal footing for the database.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Time-zone database - Astrolabe's opinion

I have had the following email statement from Astrolabe forwarded to me with regards to the time-zone database dispute:

Shortly after filing a copyright violation lawsuit with the U.S District Court for Massachusetts against Mr. Arthur David Olson or Mr. Paul R. Eggert, Astrolabe Inc., received dozens of communications via emails, telephone calls, Facebook postings, tweets, and inquiries. While there have been some legitimate inquiries, many of these communications have been hostile and accusatory in nature; Astrolabe, Inc. has been attacked on many levels, leading it to conclude, after careful review of these communications, that the purpose of this lawsuit has been misunderstood by the media and the public. Astrolabe, Inc., seeks to clarify this purpose in an effort to clear the air, and allay misguided concerns, by clearly setting forth the relevant facts:

1. Astrolabe’s lawsuit is in no way intended to interfere with compilation of current time-zone information maintained by Mssrs. Olson and Eggert, or any other persons. Indeed, Astrolabe applauds the efforts of Olson, Eggert and the many other volunteers who maintain the database of current time changes.

2. The aim of the suit is only to enforce copyright protection for materials regarding historical time data prior to 2000. This does not affect current time-setting on computers, and it has little or no effect on the Unix computing world, as erroneously reported by various media outlets, to the best of Astrolabe’s knowledge.

3. Late in 2010, Astrolabe was disturbed to learn of the compilation effort of Mssrs. Olson and Eggert, which had been going on for a number of years, included not only current time-zone information, but also historical information. In response to Astrolabe’s inquiries, Mssrs. Olson and Eggert provided misleading answers, indicating that their database included only incidental and limited reproduction of the copyrighted material, however, further research by Astrolabe revealed that this was not the case, but instead consisted of wholesale reproduction of the same, without lawful permission, contract or license.

4. The fact is that the historical time data compiled by ACS is protected by registered copyrights, particularly in publication in book form as the International Atlas, and later in electronic form as the ACS PC Atlas. The question of whether the material is “copyrightable” has already been decided by the U.S. Copyright Office in the affirmative.

5. These Atlases are not simply “compilations” of historical, readily available “facts.” Besides researching “official” records, the publisher and authors consulted a myriad of other records using proprietary methods and, on some occasions, hiring local investigators. Where inconsistencies existed, the publisher and authors used their best judgments and expertise as to the actual time observed in specific locations, based on this historical research. In much the same way as Zagat Survey and Michelin Guide not only set forth the names, addresses and features of particular restaurants, but also various ratings, the Atlases comprise original historical time and location research, including judgments and expertise in determining actual historical time observed in any given location, fully meeting the definition of an “original work” as required under the Copyright Laws of the United States.


With growing globalization, an interest in arcane historical information, such as actual time observed in specific locations -- of vital import to the astrological community -- apparently has spread to the global community. As anyone with an interest in astrology will tell you, knowing the place and actual time when a particular event occurred is important. While the dubious may cast aspersions upon astrology, they cannot discount the contributions made regarding actual historical time observations by those interested in this field, or the utility such data may have in the current global community – nor should they be allowed to profit at the expense of the hard work and efforts of others.

(Email forwarded to me by Ken Hirsch who requested "on the record" comment. Its obviously been sent to others too, as seen here, and in a slightly longer form here)

I will again avoid commenting on the legal situation and let readers make their own judgements.

However I do note that Astrolabe are effectively saying that continued development of the time-zone database with new information based on Government changes is acceptable.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Time zone database rebooted

Thanks to the efforts of Robert Elz and other community members, I can now report that the timezone database is effectively continuing without significant interruption.

The timezone database mailing list had been discussing how to handle the impeding retirement of Arthur David Olson for a while before last week. IANA had effectively been chosen as the new home, and one that would have slightly more structure than the original home. As a result of this preparation, it was possible for key members of the community, led by Robert Elz, to restart the mailing list in a new location. The first message from Robert Elz invited list members to continue the good work:

...the world's governments continue to adjust their view of their local timezones & summer time adjustments, so we need to continue updating the database (at least). There are several updates that will be needed soon.

For now, until someone else volunteers, I'm prepared to make the updates, in much the same way that Arthur did, and then make new releases available from munnari's ftp server. I suspect that it is unlikely that either Arthur or Paul will be able to assist much with this in the coming months, so I'm hoping that others will assist where possible.

Following this message, there has been a lot of activity. This included the setting up of some new FTP mirrors for the data, discussion of new time-zone changes (in exactly the same manner as before), some history digging to find old/misisng versions of code and data, discussion of PGP signing of the data, and some temporary git repositories (not ready to be cloned yet).

I think that all this energy once again demonstrates the value of open source communities and their resilience to difficulties when the code/data really matters to a wide cross-section of people. Thanks to everyone involved in provding that energy and spreading news of the attack.

However, none of us must forget Arthur David Olson and Paul Eggert, who still face the threat of a direct and personal lawsuit having given so much to the open community for zero cost and zero reward. I look forward to hearing better news for them personally.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Time-zone database down

Today (2011-10-06), the time-zone database was closed down.

It is perhaps easy to read that line, think it doesn't affect you, and then move on. But thats just not the case.

Update 2011-10-07: A backup copy of the mailing list and subscribers has now swung into operation run by volunteer Robert Elz. Please only join this list to discuss changes to time-zones - its not a "fighting the lawsuit" list. New tz list

Update 2011-10-07: More details on the history of ACS, Astrolabe and how this came about from a competitor. Worth reading.

Update 2011-10-10: A new version of the time-zone database 2011l has been released. This news indicates how other members of the community have stepped up and continued the work, so the database can no longer be considered to be "down". However, we all need to ensure that we continue to support Olson and Eggert in their fight with the foolish people at Astrolabe. My blog about the rebooted database.

Update 2011-10-26: The situation has now stabilised. The database is now hosted by IANA after the succesful database reboot. Astrolabe also gave their opinion on the matter.

The time-zone database (sometimes referred to as the Olson database) is the computing world's principle source of time-zone data. It is embedded in every Unix and Java for starters, and will be used by many websites and probably by your iPhone. You may know it via the IDs, such as "Europe/London" or "America/New_York".

But, perhaps you're thinking that time-zones don't change? Well that may be true for America and the EU right now, but certainly isn't for the rest of the world. Governments change their time-zones all the time, and the decisions are frequently very political. I'd estimate there are between 20 and 100 separate changes made around the globe each year. And these can be at very short notice, triggered by earthquakes for example.

The time-zone database tracks all this information and creates a standard format file that describes it. I would show you an example of the file, but then perhaps I'd be sued....

The database itself was run as an open source project, led by Arthur David Olson, supported by many others. The data was published as a set of files about 15 times a year, and then picked up by users everywhere.

The complaint itself comes from Astrolabe, Inc, whose website looks like a company I would avoid doing business with.

The complaint is that Astrolabe produce a work, the "ACS Atlas", which is referenced by the time-zone database (some sources suggest that Astrolabe may have recently purchased the work). Astrolabe claim copyright over their work and thus believe that the time-zone databse should not have released their information to the public domain. The case is targetted at two private individuals - Arthur David Olson and Paul Eggert, who have hosted the website for many years.

The key passage in the time-zone database files is this:

# From Paul Eggert (2006-03-22):
# A good source for time zone historical data in the US is
# Thomas G. Shanks, The American Atlas (5th edition),
# San Diego: ACS Publications, Inc. (1991).
# Make sure you have the errata sheet; the book is somewhat useless without it.
# It is the source for most of the pre-1991 US entries below.

For obvious reasons, I'll refrain on commenting on the rights and wrongs of the case, although I will note that facts like the phonebook cannot be copyrighted. A detailed response from one site taken down is now available. Instead I'll focus on the impact.

The impact of this is severe for anyone that uses it - whether via Java, Unix or some other means. This really is the key tool used by everyone to tell the right time globally. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the database maintainers who have worked on this for many, many years at zero cost to the industry and for zero financial gain.

So, right now the global situation is that there is no longer a single central location for time-zone information for computing. I'm sure that each major user project (like the Unix distros) will patch their own versions as best they can, but the stricter ones might argue that the current data is tainted and want to remove even that. This could get very messy very quickly.

Both Joda-Time and ThreeTen/JSR-310 use the data to build timezone information. ThreeTen/JSR-310 in particular provides this information in huge detail to applications. The worst case scenario is that multiple groups start up to provide this data in the future, and applications are then responsible for handling multiple competing data sources.

This data is so key to the world at this point that it needs to be formalised and run by a group with more legal and financial backing. Efforts had been ongoing to achieve this, but they may now be in jeopardy - who would want to take on a project being legally attacked?.

I hereby call on the industry leaders to help sort this out - IBM, Oracle, Apple, Google, RedHat I'm looking at you.
Update: I didn't include Microsoft here because Windows has its own time-zone data files.

In the meantime, could I please ask that anyone thinking of patching the data on a temporary basis, or trying to recreate it from scratch, re-uses the existing file format. There is no reason to believe that the C code or file format is tainted by the lawsuit, just the data. So, lets all please try to minimise the mess that could happen if everyone starts to go their own way.

Add a comment or a rant below!

Update 2011-10-07: Alternatively you can rant on their Facebook page, Website contact us page or Amazon book review (note that the book may be by a different company - its a little unclear).