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To read comments to this article, go here
Microsoft Patents Sudo?!! - Updated 3Xs
Wednesday, November 11 2009 @ 10:36 AM EST

Lordy, lordy, lordy. They have no shame. It appears that Microsoft has just patented sudo, a personalized version of it.

Here it is, patent number7617530. Thanks, USPTO, for giving Microsoft, which is already a monopoly, a monopoly on something that's been in use since 1980 and wasn't invented by Microsoft. Here's Wikipedia's description of sudo, which you can meaningfully compare to Microsoft's description of its "invention".

This is why what the US Supreme Court does about software patents means so much. Hopefully they will address the topic in their decision on Bilski. Sudo is an integral part of the functioning of GNU/Linux systems, and you use it in Mac OSX also. Maybe the Supreme Court doesn't know that, and maybe the USPTO didn't realize it. But do you believe Microsoft knows it?

Perhaps Microsoft would like everyone in the world to pay them a toll at least, even if they don't want to use Microsoft's software? Like SCO, but with more muscle behind the request? Or maybe it might be used as a barrier to competition? What do you personally believe Microsoft wants patents on things like sudo for? To make sure innovative new companies can compete on an even playing field with Microsoft?

And how do you like the final wording of the patent?:

Although the invention has been described in language specific to structural features and/or methodological steps, it is to be understood that the invention defined in the appended claims is not necessarily limited to the specific features or steps described. Rather, the specific features and steps are disclosed as preferred forms of implementing the claimed invention.
Please don't ever again write to me that software patents are good for us because they include full disclosure, so others can build on the "invention".

And to the USPTO, whose representative just argued in oral argument in Bilski that software should be patentable and that software can make a regular computer a special use computer, and all that drivel, please put those thoughts together with this patent, and consider the market implications of giving anyone that kind of monopoly, and especially the implications of giving it to a monopoly named Microsoft. It's like giving a serial killer his very own machine gun, stronger than any gun his intended victims are allowed to purchase. You have to ask, what were you thinking?

Obviously, if they could figure that out, they'd never have issued this patent in the first place. The fact that they did, without realizing the implications, or the obviousness, or the prior art, tells us that the USPTO simply lacks the foundational technical information, or the awareness of technical history, to make wise patent decisions about software and patents.

The earliest sudo reference in the patent database Microsoft told the USPTO about is 1997, for patent 5655077, and in other references 1991, so for all the patent-loving dolts in the world, here is A Brief History of Sudo:

Sudo was first conceived and implemented by Bob Coggeshall and Cliff Spencer around 1980 at the Department of Computer Science at SUNY/Buffalo. It ran on a VAX-11/750 running 4.1BSD. An updated version, credited to Phil Betchel, Cliff Spencer, Gretchen Phillips, John LoVerso and Don Gworek, was posted to the net.sources Usenet newsgroup in December of 1985.

In the Summer of 1986, Garth Snyder released an enhanced version of sudo. For the next 5 years, sudo was fed and watered by a handful of folks at CU-Boulder, including Bob Coggeshall, Bob Manchek, and Trent Hein.

In 1991, Dave Hieb and Jeff Nieusma wrote a new version of sudo with an enhanced sudoers format under contract to a consulting firm called "The Root Group". This version was later released under the GNU public license.

In 1994, after maintaining sudo informally within CU-Boulder for some time, Todd Miller made a public release of "CU sudo" (version 1.3) with bug fixes and support for more operating systems. The "CU" was added to differentiate it from the "official" version from "The Root Group".

In 1995, a new parser for the sudoers file was contributed by Chris Jepeway. The new parser was a proper grammar (unlike the old one) and could work with both sudo and visudo (previously they had slightly different parsers).

In 1996, Todd, who had been maintaining sudo for several years in his spare time, moved distribution of sudo from a CU-Boulder ftp site to his domain, courtesan.com.

In 1999, the "CU" prefix was dropped from the name since there has been no formal release of sudo from "The Root Group" since 1991 (the original authors now work elsewhere). As of version 1.6, Sudo no longer contains any of the original "Root Group" code and is available under an ISC-style license.

In 2001, the sudo web site, ftp site and mailing lists were moved from courtesan.com to the sudo.ws domain (sudo.org was already taken).

In 2005, Todd rewrote the sudoers parser to better support the features that had been added in the past ten years. This new parser removes some limitations of the previous one, removes ordering constraints and adds support for including multiple sudoers files.

sudo, in its current form, is maintained by:
Todd Miller

Todd continues to enhance sudo and fix bugs.

I guess Microsoft forgot to mention that. They certainly must know.

And of course Microsoft and patent lovers will argue that this is a new and improved sudo, which has quirky new bells and whistles that no one else ever thought of before. From the patent:

The invention claimed is:

1. One or more computer-readable media having computer-readable instructions therein that, when executed by a computing device, cause the computing device to present a user interface in response to a task being prohibited based on a user's current account not having a right to permit the task, the user interface comprising: information indicating the task and an entity that attempted the task; a selectable help graphic wherein responsive to receiving selection of the selectable help graphic, the computer-readable instructions further cause the computing device to present the information; identifiers, each of the identifiers identifying other accounts having a right to permit the task, wherein the identifiers presented are based on criteria comprising: frequency of use; association with the user; and indication of sufficient but not unlimited rights; one of the identifiers identifies a higher-rights account having a right to permit the task, wherein the one of the identifiers comprises: a graphic identifying the higher-rights accounts associated with the user; and a name of the higher-rights account; an authenticator region capable of receiving, from the user, an authenticator usable to authenticate the higher-rights account having the right to permit the task, wherein: the authenticator comprises a password, and the authenticator region comprises a data-entry field configured to receive the password.

2. One or more computer-readable media having computer-readable instructions therein that, when executed by a computing device, cause the computing device to perform acts comprising: determining multiple accounts capable of permitting a task not permitted by an account of a current user wherein the determining is based on criteria comprising: frequency of use; association with the current user; and indication of sufficient but not unlimited rights; receiving indicators for the multiple accounts capable of permitting the task; presenting a graphical user interface, the graphical user interface having: multiple account regions, each account region identifying one of the multiple accounts capable of permitting the task; an authenticator region capable of receiving an authenticator for one of the multiple accounts capable of permitting the task; receiving, through the graphical user interface, the authenticator for one of the multiple accounts capable of permitting the task; and responsive to receiving the authenticator for one of the accounts capable of permitting the task, packaging, into a computer-readable package, the received authenticator and the account capable of permitting the task associated with the authenticator, the package effective to enable authentication of the account capable of permitting the task.

Etc. blah, blah. Dude. It's sudo. With a gui. Sudo for Dummies. That's what it is.

Software and patents need to get a divorce, before all the geeks in the world either stop coding in disgust or die laughing.

Also, because so many of the In Re Bilski amicus briefs in Bilski warned of financial devastation and decreased innovation if the US Supreme Court limits what is patentable, I wanted to highlight a research study that seems to demonstrate the opposite. Here's the summary of the paper, Patents and the Regress of Useful Arts, by Dr. Andrew W. Torrance & Dr. Bill Tomlinson, [10 Colum. Sci. & Tech. L. Rev. 130 (2009) (Published May 15, 2009)]:

Patent systems are often justified by an assumption that innovation will be spurred by the prospect of patent protection, leading to the accrual of greater societal benefits than would be possible under non-patent systems. However, little empirical evidence exists to support this assumption. One way to test the hypothesis that a patent system promotes innovation is to simulate the behavior of inventors and competitors experimentally under conditions approximating patent and non-patent systems. Employing a multi-user interactive simulation of patent and non-patent (commons and open source) systems (―PatentSim‖), this study compares rates of innovation, productivity, and societal utility. PatentSim uses an abstracted and cumulative model of the invention process, a database of potential innovations, an interactive interface that allows users to invent, patent, or open source these innovations, and a network over which users may interact with one another to license, assign, buy, infringe, and enforce patents. Data generated thus far using PatentSim suggest that a system combining patent and open source protection for inventions (that is, similar to modern patent systems) generates significantly lower rates of innovation ...
Sometimes what "everyone" knows to be so, actually is not so. I thought, since the US Supreme Court seemed to me to accept as "fact" that patents are beneficial, it would be useful to point out that there is a significant basis for doubt that patents increase innovation.

Finally, here's a video Patently O put on its site, which addresses that very question. As Patently O's Dennis Crouch describes it, in part:

The video prominently features BU law professor and economist Michael Meurer whose book Patent Failure (with Jim Bessen) uses economic analysis to make the case that patents (particularly software patents) are a net drag on innovation.
You can read three chapters (here's the chapter on Abstract Patents and Software) of Patent Failure - How Judges, Bureaucrats, and Lawyers Put Innovators at Risk here, and then order it and read it.

Please.

Update: Steve Martin notes that sudo goes back even further, to the 1970s and mainframes:

Oh, good grief! This concept goes back way past BSD, back to the mainframe days. (See, for example, the XDS Sigma 7 UTS Reference manual (1971), Appendix B, the listing for monitor error code 09, subcode 00: "The user privilege level was not high enough to allow issuing a direct device OPEN".)

Update 2: More prior art. I got an email from a member who tells me this:

PJ,

There was also a unix utiliity that elevated user rights that we used until the late 1990s with even the same name as Microsoft chose- called runas. I used it quite a bit on Sun Microsystems computers and eventually on Linux until sudo became a standard on Linux bundles. I'm thinking that it was created by a few graduates of Old Dominion University, but not as an official program of the university. However, I am finding a few references in google searches and on archive.org....

Original link

Site moved around 2000 to here.

On archive.org and here.

Update 3: In response to some criticism that what Microsoft has patented is something new, not just sudo, first, that is what the article says, as per the "bells and whistles" language. Second, please remember what the US Supreme Court wrote in the decision in KSR Int'l Co. v. Teleflex Inc.:
We build and create by bringing to the tangible and palpable reality around us new works based on instinct, simple logic, ordinary inferences, extraordinary ideas, and sometimes even genius. These advances, once part of our shared knowledge, define a new threshold from which innovation starts once more. And as progress beginning from higher levels of achievement is expected in the normal course, the results of ordinary innovation are not the subject of exclusive rights under the patent laws. Were it otherwise patents might stifle, rather than promote, the progress of useful arts. See U. S. Const., Art. I, 8, cl. 8. These premises led to the bar on patents claiming obvious subject matter established in Hotchkiss and codified in 103. Application of the bar must not be confined within a test or formulation too constrained to serve its purpose.
Now. Think about sudo and Microsoft's patent. Where does it fit in the ordinary innovation spectrum? If you are in doubt, I invite you to read the comments to this article, where you will find many comments indicating that it surely lacks uniqueness in concept or in some cases approximate application, from what I've been reading, being just a natural little bell and whistle that some had already thought of. Even if no one had thought of it, is it not a natural extension of sudo? For that reason, the patent, despite what some are saying to try to minimize the seriousness of this patent, does have potential application to the marketplace, because it's what they call a blocking patent, meaning its purpose is to lock up a certain technology so others can't use it without paying. Worse, to quote the court, the worry is that "patents might stifle, rather than promote, the progress of useful arts". That is precisely what my article highlights.

Now. Those who think patents are a good thing don't mind such a thought. Folks can believe whatever they like, of course. But how about you? Imagine IT when all these simple, foundational, obvious concepts are locked up. How do you like it? Guess who will own most of it? You? Linus? FOSS projects? Then what happens to innovation? To simple functionality? Patents already block certain functionality totally in FOSS. Why would anyone see more of that as a good thing? See now why I wrote about it? And I stand by what I wrote.


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