Peanuts 5: Treaty shopping

“Things will not get any better. The big international trade treaties (TRIPS, TPP, and so on) receive quite a bit of publicity and are, relatively speaking, actually fairly transparent. Bilateral treaties are obscure and opaque. When there is a huge wealth asymmetry between the countries (Switzerland and Uruguay in this case), the treaties may be fair — or not.”

There is now enough new information to revisit the Plumpy’Nut/Nutriset case (earlier posts: Summary; Background; Details; Nutriset’s actions; worse-case scenarios).

The Plumpy’Nut case is a useful test case to use because of its simplicity: it is a single patent owned by a single company, covering a single product (though very broadly). There are two key problems. Problem one refers to the details of how Nutriset was able to get the patent granted so easily; problem two refers to how the treaty-shopping system is weighted against poor countries.

Problem 1: Ease of getting an African patent

African patents tend to be granted based on international searches without much national-level analysis. We earlier saw that this is the case for South Africa (see African patent system 3); there is no reason to assume that the situation is any different for poorer African countries. If a patent is shown to be valid in an international search, it will be granted in Africa.

We also saw that obtaining patents for large swathes of Africa is relatively simple via the ARIPO and OAPI systems (African patent system 1). Just filling in two forms can basically get patents granted in 34 African countries.

A search for Nutriset at the WIPO indeed shows that the ARIPO patent has been granted under the PCT. Although technically each country can decide whether to grant a national patent, in practice this would not seem to be practiced.

The PCT search document (see pdf: 0900636180141db4) shows why the patent has been granted — it is indeed novel. There are at least two earlier products that contain (milk) protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, just as Plumpy’Nut does. However the earlier prior art products are water-insoluble when packaged, but can be easily dispersed in water once opened. Plumpy’Nut can be consumed as is.

The aim of Plumpy’Nut was to produce a product that can be consumed without water. This is a huge advantage in a situation where clean water is not easily available.

If one ignores ethical issues, the case is completely clearcut: Plumpy’Nut is an innovative and useful product, and undoubtedly satistifes the novelty and inventiveness steps needed in general for patents. The ARIPO will in effect have had little or no choice, according to its own rules. There have been no legal grounds to reject the patent.

Problem 2: Picking & choosing a trade agreement

The complexity of international IPR is noted by a Dec 21 posting of the EFF, related to trade agreements that include IPR. “Local trade agreements are interconnected among hub-and-spoke systems, creating networks that transmit IP provisions across agreements, and eventually from one domestic IP regime to another. It’s a harmful network effect.”

There is a very good ongoing non-IPR-related case that shows just how treaty-shopping can work: tobacco company Philip Morris vs the nation of Uruguay. Uruguay’s GDP is les than 50 billion USD,  while the market cap of Phillip Morris is ~100 billion USD and annual revenues are ~60 billion USD. The company is literally larger than the country.

Uruguay has instigated very strong anti-tobacco laws. According to Fox News Nov 23, 2012,  “The country requires 80 percent of every cigarette package to show graphic images of smoking consequences, from diseased lungs and rotten gums to a cartoon image of a mother blowing smoke at her baby’s face.”

This caused Philip Morris to sue the country in a World Bank tribunal for breaking a trade agreement with Switzerland (where Philip Morris is based). The Philip Morris response (quoted in the same article):  ”The Uruguayan government has done something which no other government has done, [it] doesn’t seem to make any sense to us from a public-health perspective and has clearly damaged our investment there…. We are challenging regulations which are not fairly applied to all companies, add further fuel to Uruguay’s huge black market in cigarettes and have not even been shown to reduce smoking prevalence.”

For more details from various perspectives, see TechDirt; Guardian;  UPI; TobaccoTactics. (Note that it’s proven to be almost impossible to find sources that would be favorable to Philip Morris. We may be getting only one side of the story here).

The case is currently still unresolved, but it is highly indicative of what treaty shopping can lead to. When companies are larger than countries, treaties can lead to strange results.

What is the end result

Things will not get any better. The big international trade treaties (TRIPS, TPP, and so on) receive quite a bit of publicity and are, relatively speaking, actually fairly transparent. Bilateral treaties are obscure and opaque. When there is a huge wealth asymmetry between the countries (Switzerland and Uruguay in this case), the treaties may be fair — or not.

Loose patent processes at the African end allow large areas of Africa to be covered with minimal work; treaty shopping allows multinationals a simple way to find good ways to tap into those processes. The combination does not sound good.

 

SriNet 2: Business aspects

 

This is part 2 of the SriNet project. See Srinet 1 for background and details. The project was unsuccessful, but we feel that the spirit of Open Science calls for publishing of failures. It allows others to avoid making the same mistakes; also, failure does not necessarily mean that the idea was bad. If one has dropped the project for good, and someone else can find something useful in the wreckage, why not publish?

We hope to make this attitude more popular, and are practicing it ourselves. Perhaps this will inspire others to publish similar failures (maybe even here on the Troglodyte site).

This part summarizes the cost and business case estimates made for the SriNet project. The analysis suggests that an extremely low cost might be possible, making the solution suitable for use even in developing countries like Sri Lanka. However, we could not find a way to motivate anyone to fund the R&D part. Thus, we are not pursuing this further for the time being.

[By Niko Porjo and Jakke Mäkelä]

 

BUSINESS ASPECTS

Business case: both hardware cost and data transmission costs are kept so low that building and maintaining network is realistic to perform as a public service. Data transfer can be made over mobile phone network (SMS, GPRS, 3G…) or landline if available. Multiple operators are made to compete to keep data costs down. Hazard indication to end users will need to be wireless to achieve real-time warning.

Benefits

An exact business case is difficult to determine, as it is for any lightning warning system.

Situation in Sri Lanka: Tens of deaths reported annually, real number of deaths and injuries unknown. Commercial detection systems too expensive to maintain.

Costs

Absolute worst-case scenario: If SMS sent less than once per min, reliability of network becomes poor. Thus cannot transfer much less than this. During storms, whole network would need to be transmitting 60*60=3600 SMS/hour. In Finland,  cost of SMS on one operator is ~5 cent, so cost would be 180 EUR/hr for whole network. Assuming 6 hours/ day of storms in active seasons, would mean 30 kEUR/month, which is of course completely unacceptable. But in practice, there are fixed-cost deals available from operators. Multiple operators are absolutely needed in order to maximize price competition and minimize risk of monopoly pricing. But there are SMS-based systems in existence which are affordable (for example Nokia Life Tools http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nokia_Life_Tools) which means that costs could be kept reasonable if there is political push.

Transfer rate over GPRS, if available, is even in extreme case ~160 B/min or 1kB/hour per station.  For total network, transfer is ~60 kB/hour. Per month, amounts to ~100 MB. On one Finnish operator, GPRS cost can be ~1.5 EUR/MB, so cost would be <200 EUR/month. Clearly GPRS would be the preferable channel where available.

Costs

Sensors need to be stockpiled to allow them to be replaced quickly if needed, so at least 100 need to be built. Smaller calibration networks can also be developed in parallel and run in a suitable country.

Main components are radio receiver, GPS clock, GSM/GPRS, processing unit. Battery may be most expensive individual component. ideally will run on AC power, but need to have backup battery/UPS capable of multi-hour operation in case of power failure.  Unit cost of 400EUR should definitely be reachable (cost of full network 40kEUR), though profit margin to manufacturer is then low. This part may need to be subsidized.

Setting up of network is low-cost since all sensors are autonomous and operate by wireless network. Slow deployment is possible.

Central unit can be a tabletop PC. Redundancy and power supply needs will increase cost significantly, but main algorithm is simple.

Operating costs can be minimal if GPRS can be used.

Cost of transmitting hazard information to users via Cell Broadcast is largest open question.

Funding and implementation

No funding was found in 2011 or 2012.

The organization Geoscientists Without Borders has been funding projects which are similar to the proposal, http://www.seg.org/web/foundation/programs/geoscientists-without-borders

The target of the pilot is to improve local R&D competence in Sri Lanka, but kicking off the project could require an investment that is difficult to find locally. National foreign aid organizations (Finland or Sweden) might be approached for projects of this type, especially if some of the testing can be done in Europe (enhancing local knowledge also).

Similar projects

Blitztortung, Ortega 2007, …Lots of small semi-official warning systems are known to exist, but limited info in public domain. Data transfer is almost always by fixed-line Internet, which can be unreliable especially in developing countries. Mobile wireless networks have better reliability (though not perfect).

References

Mäkelä, J. “Electromagnetic signatures of lightning near the HF frequency band”, Finnish Meteorology Institute Contributions 80, 2009.  https://oa.doria.fi/handle/10024/50383

Ortéga, P., Magnetic direction finder network for a local warning device, Journal of Lightning Research, Vol 2, 18-27, 2007.

Porjo, N., J. Mäkelä, Simulation of a narrow band HF lightning location system, International Conference on Lightning Protection (ICLP 2010), Cagliari, Italy, 2010

SriNet 1: Ultra-low-cost detection system for developing countries

 

Our team is used to failure. We have looked rather heavily into some humanitarian technologies, and have not succeeded in making a living from them.  It is a normal to hide such failures, but we feel that the spirit of Open Science calls for the opposite. Publishing one’s failures allows others to avoid making the same mistakes; also, failure does not necessarily mean that the idea was bad. If one has dropped the project for good, and someone else can find something useful in the wreckage, why not publish?

We hope to make this attitude more popular, and are practicing it ourselves. Perhaps this will inspire others to publish similar failures (maybe even here on the Troglodyte site). Publishing can also act as a form of “antipatenting”; when the ideas are published openly, it is more difficult for others to raise the costs by patenting the ideas.

[By Niko Porjo and Jakke Mäkelä]

We were earlier involved in one big catastrophe communications project (see The SMOS project). That project was possibly doomed from the start, but we published everything we learned. We are now adding another project to the list: SriNet. The concept (first proposed in in 2011) is an ultra-low-cost lightning detection system, usable in developing countries. We chose Sri Lanka as a possible place to test the system due to practical reasons and existing collaborations.

The concept is based on ideas and technologies that we were familiar with from our work; in fact, we have published the key ideas in peer-reviewed journals.  We looked seriously into making this a commercial project, but have come to the conclusion that we would just starve.

 

The document below is mostly in the form we left it in 2011. We have done some fiddling, added information on AS3935 etc. It is in draft form, as we do not feel like wasting our time on prettifying it after making a no-go decision. Technically oriented people will understand what we are saying. For readability, we have split the document into two parts; the technical document here, and a commercial document to be published later.

The various entities mentioned here (University of Uppsala, University of Colombo, and Finnish Meteorological Institute) were approached unofficially, but have not formally commented on the idea.

Since 2011 mobile devices with all sorts of apps and versatile wireless data transfer capabilities have become even more ubiquitous and cheaper. This might change the technical approach a little, for example using a stock Android phone with a Rasberry pi attached to a GPS clock source and a small custom board for the AS3935 would likely be fairly cheap and easy to source. In addition or in place of the SMS approach a freely available app might be the way to go.

PROPOSAL FOR SRINET: AN ULTRA-LOW-COST LIGHTNING DETECTION SYSTEM FOR SRI LANKA
Niko Porjo, Jakke Mäkelä
First proposed July 2011 (revised January 2013)

A loose consortium between for example the University of Colombo, University of Uppsala, Finnish Meteorological Institute, and the proposers could contain all the competence that is needed to implement the project. As of 2012, a new lightning detection chip AS3935 is available from Austriamicrosystems which could form the detector part in the first generation. Thus, the hardware design would be particularly simple now (http://www.ams.com/eng/Lightning-Sensor/AS3935)

Possible participants (proposal)

  • The University of Colombo has experience of the local conditions. Since the target is to transfer all the knowledge to Sri Lanka, Colombo should be the overall lead for the project, with other parties consulting per need.
  • The University of Uppsala has in-depth knowledge of lightning physics and a close working collaboration with Colombo.
  • The Finnish Meteorological Institute has a unit which is experienced with setting up weather-observation systems in developing countries.
  • Mäkelä and Porjo have experience with low-end detector design as well as the network technology.

PURPOSE

Create an ultra-low-cost lightning detection and warning system for developing countries.

Pilot project could be run e.g. in Sri Lanka.Technology tests need to be done in a country with accurate lightning location reference data (USA or Europe)

Technology exists (and multiple technologies possible), missing is a low-cost system to bring the data together and disseminate it to end users. Specifically, low-cost real-time systems are missing.

Focus is on extreme simplicity, capability to withstand power cuts, quick response times.

Modular and technology-agnostic (no technology lock-in). Only requirement is that each station be able to provide a distance estimate when a flash is detected.

Open-source project, with possibility to incorporate better techniques as technology improves.

Simplest detectors can be built based on public-domain information. Local Sri Lankan R&D can be used to design and build the sensors.

In the somewhat harsh conditions, it is realistic to assume that some of the measuring sensors will be malfunctioning or offline at any given time. Network algorithm must be made flexible to account for this.

Proposal for demonstrator

Build network that covers the western coastal region of Sri Lanka.

Build detection network on principles described in Porjo & Mäkelä 2010. As of 2013, the AS3935 chip from Austriamicrosystems (about 4 USD) is available as a front-end. This information is in the public domain. Simple detectors are also well-known and in the public domain. Some original design work may be needed, but could be done at University of Colombo (academic work).

Sensors by default transmit flash information via mobile phone link (SMS or GPRS). Landlines (Internet access) can be used if available, but they can be expected to be more vulnerable to errors than wireless especially when storms are nearby.

Flash-by-flash locations are not attempted, only storm risk zones (Mäkelä 2009). Intra-cloud flashes are difficult to range in any case, and from the viewpoint of security, the most important parameter are the boundaries of the active storm cells.

Central computer identifies storm risk areas. Sri Lankan Met Institute? Must plan system with high redundancy from the very beginning (at least two computers running separately) because probability of failure is highest exactly when the storms are strongest. The duplicate(s) can also be used to beta test networks whenever stations change.

Mobile base stations within the risk areas send warning SMS to participating cell phones. GSM standard  allows this since a cell broadcast recommendation exists . But this is potentially difficult issue as requires operator cooperation, as well existence of the GSM network which may be unreliable. Negotiation with operators is needed, and in particular operator lock-in must be avoided (in which an operator can define his own price at will). Note that in principle it is NOT necessary to alert 100% of the people in the area, as it can be expected that people will alert each other. However, 100% should be a target.

Since ranging accuracy drops radically after 20 km, stations cannot be separated by much more than this. For redundancy reasons, stations every 10 km might be better. In case of Sri Lanka, region of main interest is the coastal strip, thus the network could consist of approx three rows of sensors separated by ~20 km, sensors every 10 km or so.  To protect 200 km strip of coast, need minimum 3×20=60 sensors.

Data transfer needs

Data transfer needs to be divided among multiple operators to avoid collapse if one operator’s SMS center crashes. Ideally each sensor would have at least two SIM’s (dual-SIM technology already exists) in case one crashes.

Data transfer from sensors is to be by SMS or GPRS. Since locations of stations is known, only need per flash time (to 1-sec GPS accuracy) and intensity (8 bits would be sufficient if calibration is OK). Since we want to allow possibility of direction-finding at least in the future,  8 bits allows 1.4% angular resolution. Time can highly compressed if for example nearest hour is assumed to be known, in which case 12 bits is enough to code nearest second. Some kind of reliability value of a few bits would also be useful. → Each flash could be coded in 32 bits.

SMS spec has 1120 bits per message (160 7-bit characters as in SMS, equivalent to 140 8-bit characters as in Twitter).  Thus up to 35 flashes could be coded in a single SMS. Since flash rates are essentially never 30 flashes/minute (in extreme cases ground flashes up to 4-6 flashes/min, cloud flashes theoretically 10 times higher). Sending SMS once per minute would be sufficient even in case of an extreme storm.

[Business aspects: separate posting to be published later]

References

Mäkelä, J. “Electromagnetic signatures of lightning near the HF frequency band”, Finnish Meteorology Institute Contributions 80, 2009.  https://oa.doria.fi/handle/10024/50383

Ortéga, P., Magnetic direction finder network for a local warning device, Journal of Lightning Research, Vol 2, 18-27, 2007.

Porjo, N., J. Mäkelä, Simulation of a narrow band HF lightning location system, International Conference on Lightning Protection (ICLP 2010), Cagliari, Italy, 2010

African patent system 3: South Africa, more realistically

 

I have been looking at the African patent system in general (see African patent system), and the South African system in particular (see South Africa, Part 1). In the previous posting, I came to the tentative conclusions that, based on statistics alone, South Africa might be in a reasonably good place when it comes to IPR. However, it is necessary to go into more detail.

Can the WIPO page give any additional information?

The WIPO statistics page for South Africa has very limited information, but some intuition is possible. The main fields of technology are listed. The four largest groups are civil engineering, materials/metallurgy, chemical engineering, and basic materials chemistry, accounting for over 25% of patents filed in 1996-2010. The categories of handling and “other special machines” account for a further 10%.

Since mining is a crucial part of South Africa’s economy (6% of GDP but 60% of exports), it is a fair bet that most of the IPR in those categories is related to mining in some way or another.

The only additional piece of useful information in the WIPO statistics is the top ten list of largest domestic PCT (international) applicants in 2012. These are essentially the companies that are aiming to grow internationally. The ten companies filed a total of 75 patents. There is quite a bit of diversity in them

The largest individual patent filer (13) was the South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI). Two companies related to mining (Element 6 and Detnet) filed a total of 16 applications. Discovery Holdings, with 6 patents, has filed a portfolio of business software patents in the USA.  Sasol Technology (5 applications) is in the petrochemical industry. Most of the other large filers are universities.

Although this is nothing more than an impressionistic view, it does suggest that South Africa is not being dominated by foreign interests to the same extent that other African countries might be.

What does the CIPRO look like in reality?

Intellectual property in South Africa is handled by the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPRO, Web page). The CIPRO page on patents does not on the face of it contain anything that would differ significantly from the European system. However, reading in depth, the reality does not look quite so good. Although the CIPRO is a serious and professional organization, there are severe limitations to what it can do.

The CIPRO Registration page contains more information on the process. In this particular case, the Wikipedia page on the South African patent system seems to summarize the process quite well:

“The responsibility for ensuring that the application is valid resides with the applicant. South Africa is a non-examining country. This means that CIPRO does not investigate the novelty or inventive merit of the invention – only the form or documentation is verified and not the substance of the product or process. For peace of mind, the inventor can make use of the services of a qualified patent attorney to investigate the existence of previous patent specifications that relate to the relevant invention. This procedure, although expensive, may negate possible future litigation procedures and unnecessary financial expenses. It is crucial that an international patent search should be conducted, especially if an inventor wants to commercialise a product or process in foreign countries. The same applies for a patentee, who wants to commercialise an invention and who does not want to infringe someone else’s patent. A search should then be conducted at the South African Patent Office. No online search facilities exist for South African Patents and all searches are carried out by hand at the Patent Office through a card based system, however, electronic patent searches may be performed on a contract basis on proprietary systems such as the Electronic Patent Journal (EPJ).”

In effect this means that any patent will be granted in South Africa if it is applied for. There are some specific rules for inventiveness, but those do not significantly differ from other countries’ rules. Since no prior art search is made, in practice the patent is granted as long as it is formally correct. Everything is done on paper (there is no electronic system).

One can only assume that the actual validity of the patent will then only be contestable in court. The risks of this system should be obvious. In the worst case, any foreign company can file whatever they want, and it will be granted. If there is a conflict with a smaller local company, the foreigners can bring in their lawyers.

Is the reality this bad? That starts to veer into journalism, and I do not know if I have resources to find out. Speaking from general life experience though: it’s likely to be ugly.

 

What to do in 2013

“So far Plumpy’Nut is just about the only major case of humanitarian IPR abuse that we have run across. Is it because nothing big has happened, or because no one has noticed?  There might well be room for an “investigative journalism” project in this area.”

Troglodyte has now been operating as a separate site for some months, but groundwork has been done for many months more (even years). Based on that experience, here’s how I currently see the IPR world. Others in the team may or may not agree (we exercise full autonomy).

  • Antipatents don’t really work, because the world is too crazy.
  • The United States is toxic waste, and not worth anyone’s time.
  • The developing world is a white spot on the map, and worth exploring.
  • Low-tech IPR potentially has a huge impact, and should be monitored.
  • Humanitarian IPR absolutely needs to be studied seriously… but who will pay?

WHAT SEEMS TO LEAD NOWHERE?
Antipatents. It may be realistic to accept that antipatents are a unique concept, but the patent troll insanity in the USA has in no longer under control. According to a Reuters interview with Colleen Chien, trolls are now filing the majority (61%) of lawsuits in the US, and the number is growing (though a followup analysis in growthology.org suggests that the explosion is partly due to rule changes). The growth is huge, and patent applications are becoming more and more ridiculous (see The Halliburton Insanity). We haven’t completely closed the antipatent possibility yet, but the Appendix describes alternatives that might work better.

The United States of America. To be nasty: The US patent system is a toxic waste problem, and it will severely hinder Americans. But that is not our problem.  There are strong attempts to harmonize patent systems around the world (TRIPS, ACTA, WIPO); while these are not “evil” as such, they should be monitored very closely.  The rest of the world should focus on avoiding leakage of the US toxic waste.

WHAT COULD LEAD SOMEWHERE?
Using patent texts as information sources. We looked at  Google’s patent portfolio on driverless cars. The focus was on looking at the text parts rather than the claims, to get an idea of where Google might be seeing the future.

The expectation was low, since the technical parts of patents are nowadays almost completely divorced from the claims (which are what is used in court). Patents up to the 1990’s tend to contain significant amounts of information about what was actually invented, whereas patents from 2000 onwards are mostly gibberish. Nevertheless, the results were promising. It is possible to get some inkling of what Google is thinking, more than from the scientific or PR-type material they are publishing. This may well be worth be doing, at least in clearly defined areas.

Developing countries and IPR. The role of IPR in developing countries is hotly contested, but not really very widely known outside small circles. There are aspects of developing-country IPR which are so well known and covered that there is little or nothing we can add. For example, the pharmaceutical battles over generic HIV/AIDS medicines seem to be ending up in favor of those developing countries which are strong enough to stand up against the West. (There are many examples to quite, but for example Médecins Sans Frontières has an anti-patent program Barriers to Access which is aimed at getting lower-cost HIV drugs to people in developing countries). However, some very specific focus areas might be interesting.

Low-tech environmental IPR.  There is also a slowly growing controversy over cleantech related to climate change (see GreenPatentBlog). We expect this controversy to become mainstream quite quickly in the same way as pharmaceuticals have, since so much money is at stake also in the West. However, at the low end we have seen remarkably little understanding or analysis of IPR issues. We have looked at biochar (Part 1, Part 2), and determined that even though there is moderate patenting activity going on in the area, it does not seem worrisome.

Humanitarian IPR. What we do not expect to see in the mainstream are IPR issues related to the poorest of the poor (see Africa, Humanitarian page). The Plumpy’Nut case (which we analyzed in depth here), in which a patent has been used to complicate famine relief, is an extreme case and did receive publicity.

However, so far Plumpy’Nut is just about the only major case of humanitarian IPR abuse that we have run across. Is it because nothing big has happened, or because no one has noticed?  There might well be room for an “investigative journalism” project in this area. Not journalism in the traditional sense, as that is a professional activity requiring a professional budget. But a group of technical experts trawling through material on the Internet can dig up a surprising amount of information.

Catastrophe IPR. As a legacy from an older (now defunct) project called the SMOS project, we maintain an interest in the way IPR could be used to help/hinder actions in catastrophes. This overlaps largely with the Humanitarian part, but acute needs (such as communications) could be separated from more long-term needs. Ideas like the Humanitarian Patent Pool could work better if focused on very specific technologies and usages.
WHAT WILL WE NEED?

The project may need some fresh blood.  The work has been collaborative and thus not impossible for any individual member, but nevertheless the project is large and ambitious.
In particular, if we do make a clear decision to focus on developing countries, we will need to find collaborators who have hands-on experience in those areas.

APPENDIX: WHAT ARE POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVES FOR ANTIPATENTS?

There are existing projects which have a much narrower scope but a much higher probability of achieving something within their scope. If anyone is interested in trying to work within the US system, these are the places where they should donate their efforts. New crowd-sourced projects seem to be cropping up regularly also.

Open Invention Network (http://www.openinventionnetwork.com/). “An intellectual property company that was formed to promote the Linux system by using patents to create a collaborative ecosystem.” The OIN seems to be developing nicely, and has several subprojects, including Linux Defenders and Defensive publications.  The OIN at the moment focuses on (open-source) software only, and is closely tied in with the proprietary prior art database of IP.com (http://priorartdatabase.com/). However, they could relatively easily expand the work to hardware if they so choose.

Ask Patents (http://patents.stackexchange.com/) is a collaboration between Stack Exchange, the USPTO, and Google Patent Search. The “primary purpose is to help individuals: 1.  Solicit help finding prior art that might apply to a patent or application.  2. Get answers to hard questions about specific patent. 3. Ask questions about the US patent system or process.” A Stack Exchange type of interface is not necessarily going to provide any long-term solutions, but it is an excellent tool for solving individual problems as they arise.

Project IV thicket was a valiant effort to try to identify the various shell companies of Intellectual Ventures; it has tried to get funding via indiegogo, but did not succeed at least on the first try (http://www.indiegogo.com/iv-thicket). Crowd-sourcing possibilities almost guarantee that projects of this type will be attempted in the future.

 

 

SMOS: What was it all about?

 

We have started a new category, Catastrophe IPR. We believe that IPR related to catastrophes is in a separate class of its own, even though closely related to Humanitarian IPR. There is so far one major entry in the category:  Project SMOS. The project material was originally hosted on http://www.zygomatica.com/smos/

The SMOS project was an off-time activity in 2011-2012 which involved Timo Tokkonen, Jakke Mäkelä, Niko Porjo, and Kalle Pietilä. We proposed a solution for catastrophe communications in which cellular base stations would be miniaturized enough to be airdropped into disaster zones.  We felt that this might be possible if all functionality except SMS was stripped from the base stations (hence SMOS, SMS Our Souls).

In a commercial sense, the project failed; in a learning sense, it was a success. We have released all the material under a CC-BY license, to benefit anyone who might be able to take ideas from the project forward. See the  Project SMOS page for a more in-depth introduction to the project.

BLOG POSTS

April 25, 2012. Saving lives or making money. A broad outline of how the project started, progressed, and what was learned about humanitarianism and startups. “A bad analogy could be borrowed where a man is on a burning platform and is given a lollipop to aid his situation before jumping. This results in a sea filled with startups holding their lollipops.”

April 25, 2012. The SMOS project. A concise summary of the project. ”We are releasing the relevant material under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY), which means that others may use the findings freely (including commercial use).”

May 2, 2012. The Kiss of Death of IPR. What happens when humanitarian crisis communications collide with patents. Nasty things happen. ”It would take a major player 15 minutes to dig up enough patents from its patent thicket to make our life impossible. Whether those patents are relevant is completely irrelevant. The threat is enough.”

May 4, 2012. The Kiss of Death of IPR–another view. A response to the above. ”Do we need a common database of free ideas that are exempt from official patents that may be used for humanitarian purposes and collectively against patent trolls?”

May 8, 2012. “Humanitarian Patent Pool”. Some numbers and practical estimates on whether a database like the above could be formed realistically. More work needed.