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.....technobabble .....for the week of February 12, 2001

.....technobabble.....would someone please tell me what on earth is going on at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)?? It seems that every month, an "intellectual property" grant is made that is more bizarre than the others that preceded it. Recently, I read about a company called Despair, Inc., that announced that it had secured a registered trademark for the "frowny" emoticon, which they use as a logo. If you don't know what an emoticon is, it's a symbol made from characters that is used to express emotion in writing. I use them myself frequently: if I am joking or saying something half-seriously, for example, I might add ":^)" to my text. Well, a "frowny" is just an emoticon that conveys sadness, such as ":(" or ":^(". Well, this company claimed to have obtained a trademark on this emoticon: ":-(". I was sure this had to be some sort of hoax, but it isn't! At least, not unless someone hacked the USPTO's web site! Check it out yourself.....

.....it gets better. Emboldened by this grant, Despair, Inc. then claimed to be planning to use this trademark to sue 7,000,000 individuals who have used the ":-(" emoticon in email. Now, I never really considered this to be all that serious (for practical reasons, if nothing else) but outrage flew all over the Internet (yielding a tremendous amount of attention to these people, which I realize I am adding to here). A few weeks later the company issued an apology and compromise. Now, if the first article about suing people wasn't obvious enough to make folks realize that this is all a joke (and it was fairly subtle, considering the idiotic things people sue for these days) the fact that the second one talks about "manufacturing problems" with frownies as they "roll off the assembly line" ought to be a clue. :^) (There, I just used one!) I have to hand it to these people, the whole thing is pretty funny.....

.....but for me, there's a bigger issue here. Outrage is warranted, not at these "Despair, Inc." pranksters, but at the USPTO for granting this trademark. One of the principles behind an intellectual property grant is supposed to be that the item granted has an element of novelty, and that it is not obvious. Given these requirements, it is clear that the people at the USPTO who issued this trademark don't have a clue about much that is Internet-related. The prior art on the use of ":-(" goes back decades. It's inexcusable that this trademark was granted--it makes a mockery of the importance of legitimate intellectual property protection. More than that, it is scary, because it makes me wonder what ridiculous "intellectual property" grant they will come up with next. If the USPTO continues in this pattern of granting exclusive rights on things that are clearly in wide use by the public, this will just serve as an opportunity for con artists to blackmail others with unscrupulous lawyers. We're just lucky that it seems Despair, Inc. is more interested in making a point than a profit.....

.....some good news for a change. :^) The United States House and Senate introduced legislation this week that promises to extend the current moratorium on Internet taxes and Web access charges for another five years. The current moratorium (damn, that's hard to spell!) expires in October 2001. I trust that I don't need to explain why this is a good thing? Read about it here.....

.....this is an interesting technology development. It seems that chip and cell phone giants Intel and Ericsson have joined forces, along with a few other investors, to create a new venture. This company, called Cambridge Positioning Systems, will be working on developing a method of tracking the location of cell phones. The company believes it will be possible to pinpoint the location of cell phones to within about 50 m of their actual location (163 feet or so, for the SI-challenged). This technology offers numerous possible advantages, from being able to have 911 on a cell phone automatically dial local emergency services, to providing information about entertainment and other features in the vicinity of the phone's user. However, like all technologies, it also has the potential to be a double-edged sword: many privacy advocates are worried that it could be used for various nefarious purposes (and they may well have a point there). More details on this controversy can be found here.....

.....in a very unsurprising development, it seems that companies are having an increasingly difficult time recruiting employees using stock options. No kidding! ;^) With the NASDAQ's slide over the last 12 months, options are no longer seen as an automatic road to riches--which they never were, but which many people seemed to think they were. (In fact, during 2000 a company made an offer to buy PCGuide.com from me in exchange for compensation that was primarily in the form of stock options. This was during the height of the NASDAQ and dot-com mania. Just a couple of weeks later, the NASDAQ began to tank. At least I make a good business decision once in a blue moon. ;^) ) As reported in the EE Times, the recent dose of reality in the stock market is filtering down to those looking for jobs, who are also starting to look at things in a more realistic way.....

.....finally, on February, February 9, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco announced that it would rule on Monday, February 12th on the Napster case. This article, entitled "Napster fans brace for bad news", describes the reaction of some of the users of this "service" to the ruling, which many expect to result in the site being shut down. My personal opinion is that this would be "bad news for thieves". I hope they do get shut down, though I realize that this won't make me very popular on the part of those who like to steal copyrighted material. I'll have reaction to the ruling, one way or the other, next week.....

.....that's all this edition. Did this column make your mouth water, or just leave a bad taste in it? Give me your feedback, please!


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