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Ebook Publisher Inkling Launches Its Own Online Store: An Amazon For Illustrated Learning Content

Thu, 11/01/2012 - 11:34

Not wanting to be outdone by South Korea and others, which mandated the use of digital textbooks by 2015, earlier this year the FCC and the Department of Ed released the Digital Textbook Playbook to help accelerate digital textbook adoption among American schools. According to a recent report from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), it’s not a matter of if this transition will happen, but when.

Since its launch in 2009, Inkling has been on a mission to reinvent publishing for the mobile, digital era by building engaging, interactive learning content from the ground up for the iPad. Initially focused on higher ed, this year Inkling has been expanding its scope, moving into consumer-facing titles and continuing education, along with making its content available on other platforms like the Web.

Today, Inkling continues that expansion with the release of the “Inkling Library,” an online store that will feature curated digital eBooks from a range of genres and proposes to serve as a one-stop shop where consumers can find hobby and interest-specific learning materials. According to Inkling founder and CEO Matt MacInnis, the library is akin to Amazon for illustrated learning content and will feature 300 titles from categories like Travel & Adventure, Food & Drink, Arts & Photography, Music, etc.

The eBooks were built from the ground up as a way to showcase the Inkling digital publishing platform, meaning that each copy comes with stuff like advanced search, the ability to sync across iPad, iPhone and the Web, glossary terms, interactive guided tours and slideshows, high-res images and social notes. The content comes from publishers like Frommer’s and O’Reilly and includes some of the “For Dummies” series now owned by Wiley. The average price of the titles is about $9.99, with the option to purchase chapters for $0.99 and up.

By the end of the year, MacInnis says, Inkling hopes to have 400 titles published to the library, with some of that content being exclusively created for Inkling, some of it familiar and published already (like “For Dummies”) and some of it augmented for the library — but all of it intending to demonstrate what’s possible now in the digital textbook market — for both indie and established publishers.

In February, Inkling launched Habitat, a cloud-based, cross-platform publishing environment that essentially allows any publisher to create digital-first titles or migrate their existing, paper-based content to digital. In a way it was a reaction to Apple’s release of iBooks 2, but instead of being a platform that allows anyone to create digital textbooks, it focused on professional publishers, giving them an easier way to make their catalogs digital, rather than having to spend millions to develop the technology themselves.

MacInnis says that the move has finally allowed Inkling to start generating real revenue, as partnerships with publishers like McGraw Hill, Pearson and Wiley have led to growing production of digital e-books. Inkling has been able to gain particular traction among medical students, as titles from the big publishers are now used in 150 medical schools worldwide and will be in 900 campus bookstores this fall. Overall, college students from more than 4,000 schools have purchased Inkling’s titles, which the founder says has started to expose it to a new set of students that had never heard of it before.

The company followed Habitat with the launch of Inkling 3.0 this summer, which brought its eBooks to the iPhone and iPod Touch. Now, with the Inkling Library, the company is starting to put the pieces together of a substantial digital publishing and distribution platform, offering both education-specific content as well as consumer-facing titles that are available on the Web, your phone and the iPad.

MacInnis believes that, while Inkling faces competition from the giants of both technology and publishing, specifically the likes of Apple and Amazon, they are trying to solve the easy problems, rather than tackling the hard stuff. Publishers want an industrial-grade tool they can use to digitize their content — that actually goes beyond a simple text-to-digital port — on top of distribution channels.

The CEO thinks that, as of now, it’s one of the few to focus on digitizing how-to and hobby content. And by helping publishers and authors get their content to appear in Google results, Twitter streams and on general consumer sites, it’s going to help accelerate what has, up to this point, been fairly slow textbook adoption.

The Inkling Library is now live on the company’s homepage. Find it here.

The Soft Tyranny of Data-Driven Expectations

Thu, 11/01/2012 - 08:35

I fear insurance. To be precise, I fear the paradoxical risks of ubiquitous data-driven “insurance-ization.”

We are just beginning to deal with the simultaneous onslaught of exponentially growing amounts of biomedical data, dirt-cheap analytical processes, and powerful financial pressures across all industries. As previously hidden health risks in specific individuals become to become visible even from before their birth, insurance providers, governments, and people must deal with issues of adverse selection and uninsurable risk.

My concern is that there isn’t anything in this model that restricts it to healthcare as such. Consider employment. To be sure, employers have always sought reassuring signals in the form of Harvard degrees and clean rap sheets, and as biological, social, and work performance features become even more widely and cheaply available, it will be impossible to prevent this data from being gathered, models of “work performance based on Facebook friending patterns” being developed, and then…

Well, the bottom line will be an increased pressure for homogeneity. After all, most businesses are fiduciarily required to reject avoidable risks, and if industry standard human resource analytics say that people with less than two new Facebook friends each week are less productive on average… It won’t be a breach of any existing anti-discrimination laws, and yet it will end up being an homogenizing pressure.

Never mind that this kind of models are seldom worth much, if at all. The value of a standard, business- and politics-wise, lies more on it being an standard than on whathever predictive value it might have. A case in point — the unexplainable existence of a no-fly list of people “too much a terrorist” to fly and yet “not enough of a terrorist” to arrest.

There is much research dedicated to signaling phenomena; roughly speaking, those things organisms do (like getting into the “right clubs”, or carrying around a big, cumbersome feather tail) not due to their usefulness, but to show to others that they can, and hence suggest other presumably related qualities. This leads to often subtle dances of signals and countersignals, deceit and traps, which is a big part of our biological and social life.

I fear, however, the data-driven expansion of this signaling behavior to a much larger area of our lives. Constantly tailoring your online behavior (and what behavior is nowadays purely offline?) to convince vague distributed entities that you are what an average-of-averages HR department would describe as normal is dispiriting enough when those entities are people; sleepless, tireless digital algorithms — if an already present sense of risk-aversion leverages itself on quantified models for the hiring and promoting of people — will be a serious setback to our quality of life.

Let's Limit the <em>Effect</em> of Software Patents, Since We Can't Eliminate Them

Thu, 11/01/2012 - 04:30

Patents threaten every software developer, and the patent wars we have long feared have broken out. Software developers and software users – which in our society, is most people – need software to be free of patents.

The patents that threaten us are often called “software patents,” but that term is misleading. Such patents are not about any specific program. Rather, each patent describes some practical idea, and says that anyone carrying out the idea can be sued. So it’s clearer to call them “computational idea patents.”

The U.S. patent system doesn’t label patents to say this one’s a “software patent” and that one isn’t. Software developers are the ones who make a distinction between the patents that threaten us – those that cover ideas that can be implemented in software – and the rest. For example: If the patented idea is the shape of a physical structure or a chemical reaction, no program can implement that idea; that patent doesn’t threaten the software field. But if the idea that’s patented is a computation, that patent’s barrel points at software developers and users.

This is not to say that computational idea patents prohibit only software. These ideas can also be implemented in hardware … and many of them have been. Each patent typically covers both hardware and software implementations of the idea.

The Magnitude of the Software Problem

Still, software is where computational idea patents cause a special problem. In software, it’s easy to implement thousands of ideas together in one program: If 10 percent are patented, that means hundreds of patents threaten it.

When Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation studied one large program (Linux, which is the kernel of the GNU/Linux operating system) in 2004, he found 283 U.S. patents that appeared to cover computing ideas implemented in the source code of that program. That same year, it was estimated that Linux was .25 percent of the whole GNU/Linux system. Multiplying 300 by 400 we get the order-of-magnitude estimate that the system as a whole was threatened by around 100,000 patents.

If half of those patents were eliminated as “bad quality” – i.e., mistakes of the patent system – it would not really change things. Whether 100,000 patents or 50,000, it’s the same disaster. This is why it’s a mistake to limit our criticism of software patents to just “patent trolls” or ”bad quality” patents. In this sense Apple, which isn’t a “troll” by the usual definition, is the most dangerous patent aggressor today. I don’t know whether Apple’s patents are “good quality,” but the better the patent’s “quality,” the more dangerous its threat.

We need to fix the whole problem, not just a part.

The usual suggestions for correcting the problem legislatively involve changing the criteria for granting patents – for instance, to ban issuing patents on computational practices and systems to perform them. But this approach has two drawbacks.

First, patent lawyers are clever at reformulating patents to fit whatever rules may apply; they transform any attempt at limiting the substance of patents into a requirement of mere form. For instance, many U.S. computational idea patents describe a system including an arithmetic unit, an instruction sequencer, a memory, plus controls to carry out a particular computation. This is a peculiar way of describing a computer running a program that does a certain computation; it was designed to make the patent application satisfy criteria that the U.S. patent system was believed for a time to require.

Second, the U.S. already has many thousands of computational idea patents, and changing the criteria to prevent issuing more would not get rid of the existing ones. We would have to wait almost 20 years for the problem to be entirely corrected through patent expiration. And legislating the abolition of these existing patents is probably unconstitutional. (Perversely, the Supreme Court has insisted that Congress can extend private privileges at the expense of the public’s rights but that it can’t go in the other direction.)

A Different Approach: Limit Effect, Not Patentability

My suggestion is to change the effect of patents. We should legislate that developing, distributing, or running a program on generally used computing hardware does not constitute patent infringement. This approach has several advantages:

  • It doesn’t require classifying patents or patent applications as “software” or “not software.”
  • It provides developers and users with protection from both existing and potential future computational idea patents.
  • Patent lawyers can’t defeat the intended effect by writing applications differently.

This approach doesn’t entirely invalidate existing computational idea patents, because they would continue to apply to implementations using special-purpose hardware. This is an advantage because it eliminates an argument against the legal validity of the plan. The U.S. passed a law some years ago shielding surgeons from patent lawsuits, so that even if surgical procedures are patented, surgeons are safe. That provides a precedent for this solution.

Software developers and software users need protection from patents. This is the only legislative solution that would provide full protection for all.

We could then go back to competing or cooperating … without the fear that some stranger will wipe away our work.

Wired is running a special series of expert opinions – representing perspectives from academia to corporations to other organizations – proposing specific solutions to the patent problem. Some will be presented and debated at the Solutions to the Software Patent Problem conference hosted by the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University on November 16. Help move reform efforts forward by sharing your comments below, since these proposals will help advocates and policy makers decide what to do about software patents.

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Let's Go Back to Patenting the 'Solution,' Not the 'Problem'

Wed, 10/31/2012 - 04:30

We already know the patent system is broken. And it desperately needs to be fixed: Patents affect and will continue to affect nearly every technology business or product we use. So for the next few weeks, Wired is running a special series of expert opinions – representing perspectives from academia to corporations to other organizations — proposing specific solutions to the patent problem. 

Software and internet patents with extremely broad claims seem to be everywhere these days. The result’s been a raft of lawsuits against companies making any products in this space.

While patent law aims to promote innovation by giving inventors the exclusive right to their inventions, modern patent law pays far less attention to what the patentee actually invented than to what the patent claims. Such “claims” are the legal definition of the patent’s scope, and the lawyers drafting them have a natural tendency to broaden claims as much as possible to secure the strongest possible rights for clients.

Software and internet patents have seen more than their share of such overclaiming.

But this isn’t a new problem presented by new technology: Seventy-five years ago, patent lawyers were increasingly writing patent claims in broad functional terms, too. These patentees were claiming to own not a particular machine – or even a particular series of steps for achieving a particular goal – but the goal itself. The Supreme Court ultimately rejected such broad “functional claiming” as inconsistent with the purposes of the patent statute, and when Congress rewrote the Patent Act in 1952, it adopted a compromise position: Patentees could write claim language in functional terms but when they did so the patent would not cover the goal itself; only the particular means of implementing the goal described by the patentee (and equivalents thereof).

These “means-plus-function” claims permitted the patentee to use functional language to describe an element of their invention. But they did not permit the patentee to own the function itself … however implemented.

Functional Claiming Is Back

Now, broad functional claiming is back. This is partly because of the way the means-plus-function claim rules have been interpreted by the Federal Circuit. Patentees have been able to write broad functional claims without being subject to the limitations of section 112(f).

But it’s also because of the nature of computer programming.

Functional claiming of software inventions is arguably responsible for most of the well-recognized problems with software patents today. Software patentees have increasingly been claiming to own the function of their program itself – not merely the particular way they achieved that goal.

Since patentees have regained the ability to claim ownership not of what they built, but of what it does, they have brought suits purporting to own everything from international electronic commerce to video-on-demand to voice over the Internet to emoticons to means of hedging commodity risk. Mind you, the claims aren’t that defendants used their method of implementing electronic commerce or video on demand: the argument is that defendants used the idea itself.

Such suits over claims purporting to cover any possible way of achieving a goal naturally lead to patent thickets. Ten different people might come up with ways of communicating voice over the Internet, but if each can claim to own the concept itself, there will be lots of overlapping patents with broad claims. While the breadth of those claims should (and does) make them easier to invalidate, the legal deck is stacked against companies who seek to invalidate overbroad patent claims.

In any other area of technology, we wouldn’t permit the sorts of ludicrous claims that appear in thousands of software patents. Pharmaceutical inventors don’t claim “an arrangement of atoms that cures cancer,” asserting their patent against any chemical in any form that achieves that purpose. Pharmaceutical patent owners invent a drug, and that drug is what they’re entitled to patent. But in software, broad claims of the “curing cancer” form are everywhere; they just use “a computer programmed to achieve result x” in place of “an arrangement of atoms.”

There are some arguments in favor of broad functional claims in software, though. Advocates point out that software is supposed to function, and that different functions that achieve the same goal are substitutes. But these arguments are insufficient to justify the costs they impose on the system … and on us. Sure, software functions, but so do jackhammers. We don’t let the inventor of a jackhammer claim every mechanism for breaking rocks. Would such a broad patent more effectively prevent competition by others? Yes. But patent law isn’t supposed to guarantee insulation from competition; it just prevents others from imitating what patentees actually did.

Everything Old Becomes New Again

Simply by applying the rules of means-plus-function claims to software, we could begin to get a handle on the software patent issue. Indeed, ending functional claiming may be the only way out of the software patent morass. As long as patentees can claim to own the problem itself – not just the solution – defining better boundaries and invalidating obvious patents won’t do much to make the patent mess go away.

Congress doesn’t need to enact new laws; it just needs to interpret the existing statute given the realities of software and modern patent practice. As it did seventy-five years ago, the law should rein in efforts to claim owning a goal itself rather than a particular means of achieving that goal. If an inventor claims to own any means of using a computer to solve a problem, we should read that claim as being limited to the particular algorithm s/he wrote to solve the problem and ones like it.

Didn’t write an algorithm (or code)? Then it’s an invalid patent.

All we need to do is recognize that the “structure” of a modern software program is not “a computer” – the hardware on which it runs – but the actual design of the program itself. If someone invents a program, s/he can own that program and ones like it, but not every program that might achieve the same end.  While doing so would narrow the scope of software patents (unfairly in a few cases), the social benefits would outweigh those concerns.

And so, with one fell swoop – without changing the patent statute and without invalidating existing patents – we may be able to solve most of the software patent problem.

The experts in this series are presenting, debating, and discussing how to implement their fixes at the Solutions to the Software Patent Problem conference hosted by the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University on November 16. You can help move reform efforts forward by weighing in below: Together with your comments, these proposals will help advocates and policy makers decide what to do about software patents.

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