Patent reform is moving along nicely on Capitol Hill, but today we got some more really big news. The Supreme Court has agreed to take on the question of patentable subject matter. Specifically, it's time to talk about software patents.
A brief refresher: under the law, one cannot patent laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas. Recently, the Supreme Court clarified this standard in two cases (here and here) that dealt with laws of nature. Despite clear guidance from the Court, when the Federal Circuit addressed the question as it relates to abstract ideas (read, software), it basically punted, failing to produce any meaningful rule of law for lower courts to follow. Even worse, it continued to muddy the waters by upholding crazy abstract patents like the one for watching an advertisement online before getting access to copyrighted content.
Today, the Supreme Court stepped in. It agreed to hear a case called Alice v. CLS Bank. We wrote about why that mattered here, but suffice it to say that the Court will be facing fundamental questions about whether many so-called software patents are impermissibly abstract.
We're glad that patent reform has momentum and that policymakers are targeting patent trolls. But the root of that problem, which has largely been missing from the public debate, is patent quality, specifically of software-related inventions. There can be no doubt: we have a problem with low-quality, abstract software patents in this country. We are incredibly glad to see the Supreme Court take on this important question and we look forward to weighing in.Related Issues: PatentsRelated Cases: Abstract Patent Litigation
On Thursday, Microsoft's Digital Crimes Unit, the legal and technical team that has driven the takedown of botnets such as Bamital and Nitol during the past year, announced that it has moved with Europol, industry partners, and the FBI to disrupt yet another search fraud botnet. The ZeroAccess botnet, also known as ZAccess or Siref, has taken over approximately 2 million PCs worldwide; Microsoft estimates that it has cost search engine advertisers on Google, Bing, and Yahoo over $2.7 million each month.
According to security reporter Brian Krebs, ZeroAccess began its life cycle in 2009 as a delivery network for other malware—dropping paying customers' viruses and Trojans, including "scareware" fake antivirus packages—onto PCs it had successfully infected. But since then, it has evolved into a "clickfraud" platform—intercepting search requests from the user's Web browser and injecting fraudulent hyperlinks into the results returned from major search sites. The botnet operators get paid through advertising networks for the traffic sent to the sites as if the user had clicked on a legitimate ad.
After identifying the IP addresses of 18 command-and-control servers involved in directing ZeroAccess, Microsoft filed civil lawsuits last week against the botnet operators in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas. The court gave Microsoft permission in court to block traffic between them and PCs in the US using technology provided by networking vendor A10 Networks.
Soylent, the food replacement from former engineer Rob Rhinehart, has hit one of its final milestones before release: the formula has been finalized and frozen, and large-scale manufacturing and packing is underway. Just after Thanksgiving, Rhinehart posted a blog entry discussing the changes in "Soylent 1.0" versus the beta 0.89 version we consumed for a week back at the end of summer.
At the time, the Soylent folks estimated that backers of the company's wildly successful crowdfunding effort would be receiving their initial shipments of Soylent in December; this estimate has now been revised to January. The main reason for the delay has been due to the small Soylent team having to find ways to cope with the realities of mass-producing their product. The beta packages of Soylent sent out to the small list of testers were all hand-stuffed, whereas the actual production version is being mixed and packaged on an industrial scale by a specialist company called a "co-packer."Macro mix
Going by the blog post, there are a number of substantial changes to the Soylent formula from the beta we slurped down. One is that the carbohydrate mixture has been nailed: one 500g bag of Soylent will contain 210g of oat flour and 132g of maltodextrin. The protein mix has also shifted—our beta Soylent contained a mix of rice and pea protein, but production Soylent will contain 102g of brown rice protein isolate.
After a partial attempt to get the Food and Drug Administration to ease up on its complaints, the personal genetics company 23andMe took a rather substantial step yesterday: it pulled all medically relevant information from its site, replacing its normal home page with a disclaimer. This move doesn't meet the FDA's original demand—that the company stop selling testing kits entirely—but it does suggest that 23andMe is now taking the issue seriously.
In late November, the FDA sent an open letter to 23andMe, noting that the company is offering a service that fits the legal definition of a medical device and is therefore subject to regulatory oversight. In fact, the company and agency had been negotiating for years regarding how best to bring the genetic tests into compliance. However, it seems that 23andMe stopped returning the agency's calls sometime earlier this year, and it then launched a new advertising campaign in which it promoted the medical relevance of its tests.
The FDA's letter seemed to alternate between disappointment and annoyance at these developments, but its proposed solution came down clearly on the annoyance end of the spectrum: it gave the company two weeks to stop offering its product. As a conciliatory gesture, 23andMe announced that it would stop promoting its products through advertising. Yesterday, it followed that up with a more dramatic step by removing all medical information from the Web portal that helps users interpret the results of the tests. Today, a visit to the company's website will bring up a dialog that asks the visitor to acknowledge the following:
Stock in Electronic Arts fell more than six percent yesterday after the company said developer DICE was placing other projects on hold as it struggles to fix server and gameplay issues with the recent release of Battlefield 4.
In a statement released late Wednesday, a DICE representative said the company was “not moving onto future projects or expansions until we sort out all the issues with Battlefield 4.” That means the development of announced games like Star Wars Battlefront and a new Mirror’s Edge is on the back burner while Battlefield issues get the developer’s full attention. The new focus also puts a hold on the development of three planned future BF4 expansions; the China Rising expansion, released earlier this week to Premium subscribers, was already in the final stages of development when issues with the base game arose.
"We know we still have a ways to go with fixing the game—it is absolutely our #1 priority,” the DICE representative said. “The team at DICE is working non-stop to update the game… We know many of our players are frustrated, and we feel your pain. We will not stop until this is right."
Once again, as we near the shortest day of the year, I'm heading quite a bit closer to the Arctic Circle. I've been invited to take part in the Nobel Week Dialog, an event organized by the Nobel Foundation to give the public a chance to join discussions regarding the role of science in understanding some of the biggest challenges facing our global society. Last year, the focus was on genetics and genomics, topics that are changing how we understand who we are and how we remain healthy.
This Monday, the Dialog will be focused on a topic that may dictate how thoroughly we get to enjoy the advances in genetics: energy. We're currently in the midst of a major transition where many countries are working toward a transition to sustainable energy sources, while others are trying to provide power for more of their citizens without becoming overly reliant on fossil fuels.
(If any readers live in or near Gothenburg, it's probably worth trying to attend. If that's not possible, many of the panels will be streamed live.)
Spotify will soon allow its ad-supported users to stream music on demand for free on their mobile devices, according to reports from the Wall Street Journal and TechCrunch. The company is reportedly holding an event next week to announce the service tweak, which takes a bit of the incentive away from subscribing.
The Journal reports that Spotify has been negotiating for nearly a year to get new mobile streaming rights, and it finally has the blessing of Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group. The rights holders and Spotify not only had to agree on rates but on how the music could be used.
Gentoo has updated swi-prolog (multiple vulnerabilities).
SUSE has updated ruby (multiple vulnerabilities).
Ubuntu has updated curl (information disclosure).
Part of the beauty of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is its incredible smoothness. But like most things, if you look closely, cracks appear in this facade. In Europa’s case, the cracks come in the form of jumbled pieces of ice that make up what are called the moon's “chaos terrains.” Just what caused the chaos is an open question.
There is, however, an obvious candidate. Europa’s most exciting characteristic is probably the ocean of liquid water that is thought to exist beneath that icy crust. It seems likely that the ocean has something to do with the chaos terrain, especially given the presence of salt there. To figure that out, however, we’d have to know something about how water circulates in that ocean. And, unlike our own oceans, you can’t just chuck a buoy in and see where it goes.
Circulation in the ocean would be driven by the heat from Europa’s interior. It’s been thought that the big-picture pattern might look something like the atmosphere of Jupiter, with alternating bands of eastward or westward flow. Ultimately, this pattern carries the greatest amount of internal heat to Europa’s polar regions. A new study, led by University of Texas at Austin researcher Krista Soderlund, suggests the circulation pattern could actually look quite different.