Revision control: A fiefdom and a federation

This is a comparison of two web sites that are experiments in self-governance: Wikipedia and GitHub. As producers of content, both are immense successes, but the governance models (i.e., the rules and process by which content is written and kept) have grown to be very different. To a great extent, we can trace most of the differences in governance to a key difference in setup: one allows forking and the other doesn’t. Continue reading

Are tax brackets obsolete?

The blog of the Tax Policy Center points out that the latest tax law revision has created a new tax bracket for singles making between $398,350 and $400,000—a $1,650 range.

It is an odd little thing. The blog estimates that under 500 people fall into the range. Of course, this isn’t how tax brackets work, and I’m certain that everybody at the TPC knows this and ignored it for the purposes of poking fun. Everybody making over $400k (a lot more than 500 people) will be paying 35% on their income in this range. But it’s still erratic: if this bracket were merged with the one below it to create a more natural under-$400k bracket, these people would be paying 33% on the income in this range. So having this bracket makes for a 2% of $1,650 increase, which comes out to…let me get out my calculator here…$33. Continue reading

Applying for obvious patents

This is the third of a series of posts on patent law, about how existing incentives encourage the production and support of obvious patents on inappropriate subject matter.

To summarize most of the story so far, the USPTO has no incentive to reject applications on obvious claims. It’s easy to find places where the USPTO refers to applicants as customers, and where its rhetoric leans more toward serving those customers than promoting Progress. Remember all that during the election campaign where President Obama promised to maintain balance at the USPTO and ensure that it serves Progress, not maximizing patent count? You don’t, because it didn’t happen.

This time we’ll consider the incentives of the applicants themselves. Continue reading

Director of the USPTO to speak on the invention of software patents

Dave Kappos, director of the USPTO, whom I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, will be speaking on the invention of software patents.

Director Kappos will address the topic of high-tech innovation and the role of software patents in that innovation. He’ll examine how software came to be patented; how those patents are featured across the innovation landscape; and how the USPTO in the last three years has taken concrete steps to ensure the highest level of quality in issued patents while providing avenues for re-examination of existing patents.

I thought this was worth posting for two reasons:

  • If you’re in DC, well, you should go. I expect it will be fun and/or hilarious.
  • This little phrase: “how software came to be patented”. That is, the director of the USPTO believes that there was a time when software was not patentable, but it now is. Given that the Supreme Court has done little but invalidate patents and tighten the range of what is patentable, and Congress hasn’t done anything on the subject since the 1950s, how did this shift occur?

I want this to be a brief post, so I’ll leave that question as an exercise for the bureauphile. Next time, some more mechanism design.

the constitutional mandate to promote progress

The cliffhanger from last time was about the difference in worldview between the specialist courts/judges who hear only patent cases and the generalist courts/judges. We can trace the root of the conflict back to the Constitution, which allows for patents in a manner different from other governmental powers.

The Constitution grants Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”.

Continue reading

why so many obvious patents?

Hi, my name is Ben Klemens, and I’m honored to say that I’ve been invited to write a bit here on Bureauphile. My background is mostly in Game Theory, Statistics, computational modeling, and other sundry methodological pursuits. But I have read far too much on patent law, so my first few posts will likely be on that subject.

Obvious patents almost seem to be the norm these days, because of all of the Bureauphile’s favorite problems, including regulatory capture and a budget-maximizing bureaucracy.

The parade of idiotic patents has been a common trope since Amazon’s one-click patent in the `00s. The slide-to-unlock feature on the iPhone, Google’s patent on doodles, or Friendster’s patent on circles of friends. I mean, if I stated to you this problem—

I have a smartphone with a screen and only one button. I need a way to keep it from turning on in users’ pockets.

—how long would it take before it occurs to you to require a gesture on the screen to unlock the telephone? As for making it work, here’s an implementation in about 450 lines of code—get it before the author gets sued. Continue reading