November 27, 2003

Allegation of "forced fermatic practices"

Verity Stob at The Register has a scoop about "US software and litigation giant Softwron Inc".

Defying a "blanket gagging injunction," The Register cites a rumor in the Usenet newsgroup sci.math.research to the effect that a patented Softwron number "and two other 'large' integers together ganged up on an unwilling smaller (but technically oversize) integer and forced it to indulged in Fermatic practices with them."

The article quote Rock McDosh, founder and CEO of Softwron, as follows:

"We categorically state that no number protected by Softwron patent has been involved in any rumoured inappropriate behaviour; and in any case we do not accept that such behaviour is inappropriate, if it could be stated what it was. Nonetheless, if going forward it were generally known what it was, our number would still not be involved in whatever it is. Which it isn’t."

According to a quoted expert, "This kind of incident is highly embarrassing for Softwron right now, but I don’t think it will ever go to court. What you have to remember is that the US Government never ratified Fermat’s Law, which it views as being anti free trade."

At the end of the article, there are links to four other Stob stories on the patenting of numbers.

In this context I'd like to draw the reader's attention to Eben Moglen's article Anarchism Triumphant, which is a serious (though entertaining) meditation, from a lawyer's perspective, on the general problem of intellectual property rights in a world that "consists increasingly of nothing but large numbers (also known as bitstreams)".

Professor Moglen's article contains this memorable passage:

No one can tell, simply by looking at a number that is 100 million digits long, whether that number is subject to patent, copyright, or trade secret protection, or indeed whether it is "owned" by anyone at all. So the legal system we have ... is compelled to treat indistinguishable things in unlike ways.

Now, in my role as a legal historian concerned with the secular (that is, very long term) development of legal thought, I claim that legal regimes based on sharp but unpredictable distinctions among similar objects are radically unstable. They fall apart over time because every instance of the rules' application is an invitation to at least one side to claim that instead of fitting in ideal category A the particular object in dispute should be deemed to fit instead in category B, where the rules will be more favorable to the party making the claim. This game - about whether a typewriter should be deemed a musical instrument for purposes of railway rate regulation, or whether a steam shovel is a motor vehicle - is the frequent stuff of legal ingenuity. But when the conventionally-approved legal categories require judges to distinguish among the identical, the game is infinitely lengthy, infinitely costly, and almost infinitely offensive to the unbiased bystander.

I'm not sure that Prof. Moglen is right about this -- large numbers seem as at least as distinguishable to me as large collections of elementary particles are -- but you should read the whole thing.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 27, 2003 08:27 PM