The death of compression

The ins and outs of the Alcatel-Lucent case against Microsoft for MP3 patent infringement are complex indeed, lying as they do in the intersection between head-crushingly difficult mathematics and heart-stoppingly tortuous IP law.This much is clear: Microsoft thought it had licenced MP3s properly from the primary inventors of MP3, the Fraunhofer institute.

The ins and outs of the Alcatel-Lucent case against Microsoft for MP3 patent infringement are complex indeed, lying as they do in the intersection between head-crushingly difficult mathematics and heart-stoppingly tortuous IP law.

This much is clear: Microsoft thought it had licenced MP3s properly from the primary inventors of MP3, the Fraunhofer institute. The Institute in turn had licences from Bell Labs - stuff as complicated as MP3 has intellectual property from all over - but that didn't cover what the Institute handed on to Microsoft, says Alcatel-Lucent. And, incidentally, everyone else who played the game and got a licence. That's a lot of companies suddenly looking down the barrel.

You may have noticed that there haven't been many new compression technologies lately. This may have something to do with the intellectual property minefield which has been seeded by the existing players: even if I wanted to create a new system, the chances that Alcatel or similar would turn up with a begging bowl are worryingly high.

But I couldn't be sure. One of the things that patent lawyers tell inventors is that on no account should they read patents in the area of their invention. If they did, and subsequently fell foul of a licence case, then the court would rule that they knowingly infringed and whap the fine up by meaty multiples. You have to fly blind. Or, you go and do something else.

So: intellectual property law has brought an important and useful area of innovation to an effective halt, and may yet see the bankrupcy of many companies already in the business - who had complied with the rules as best they could. It's not clear that this benefits anyone, including the original inventors who were clearly satisfied with the state of play before the companies they worked for decided to go back and crank up the thumbscrews.

None of these are new observations. What we need, I think, is a Jonathan Swift to put the suits to the sword. But by golly, it's hard to satirise a system that's gone quite so badly out of kilter.

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