Hackaday Links: October 6, 2019

“If you or someone you love has been exposed to questionable quality electrolytic capacitors, you could be entitled to financial compensation.” Perhaps that’s not exactly the pitch behind this class action lawsuit against capacitor manufacturers, but it might as well be. The suit claims that the defendants, a group of capacitor manufacturers that includes Nichicon, Matsuo, ELNA, and Panasonic, “engaged in an unlawful conspiracy to fix, raise, maintain, or stabilize the prices of Capacitors.” Translation: if you bought capacitors between 2002 and 2014 from a distributor, you paid too much for them. The suit aims to recover a bunch of money from the defendants and divide it up between all the class members, so make sure you go back through all your receipts from Mouser and DigiKey over the last 17 years so you can file a claim that could be worth several dozen cents.

When are people going to learn that posting pictures of their illegal activities online is an Official Bad Idea? One SpaceX fan earned a night in jail after posting selfies he took with Starhopper, the SpaceX test article currently residing at Elon Musk’s would-be spaceport at Boca Chica, Texas. JB Wagoner, a SpaceX super-fan, made the pilgrimage from California to Texas — in his Tesla of course — to see the recent Starship Mark 1 unveiling, and decided to take a side trip to see the Starhopper. He parked at a beach, climbed a dune, and was able to walk right up to Starhopper and go selfie-crazy. After posting the pictures on Facebook, he was arrested, interviewed by Homeland Security, charged with criminal trespass, and thrown in a cell overnight. Wagoner has since been bonded out, but the charges might not stick, since Texas trespassing law requires clear signage or verbal notification of trespass, neither of which Wagoner encountered. SpaceX had even let the fence between the beach and the Starhopper collapse, so Wagoner seems to have had no way of knowing he was trespassing. Still, posting the pictures online was probably asking for trouble.

As satire and dark comedy, the 1987 cyberpunk classic RoboCop can’t be beat. But it also managed to accurately foreshadow a lot of what was to come in the world in terms of technology. No, we don’t have cyborg law enforcement — yet — but we do have something predicted by one throwaway scene: robotic realtors. In the movie, kiosks were set up around Murphy’s old house to extol the various virtues of living there, which ended up triggering the cyborg and starting the film’s climactic rampage. The real-life robotic realtor is a little more flexible, more like a telepresence robot — described aptly as “a Segway with an iPad on top.” The robotic realtor is not autonomous; it only lets a remote realtor interact with potential homebuyers without having to travel to multiple homes. It seems a little gimmicky to us, but the robots are reported to have made 25 sales in their first year on the job.

We’ve been seeing a lot of cheap resin printers these days, enough to make us want to jump into the market and start playing with them. But the cheap ones are all cheap for the same reason — they’re so dang small! They all use LCD screens from phones to mask off the UV light used to cure the resin, and the resulting print volume is tiny. Clem Mayer from MayerMakes has bigger ideas, though: he wants to make a giant resin printer using an LCD monitor as the mask. It’s not as simple as using a bigger screen, though; the film used between the screen and the resin, a fluoropolymer film called FEP, gets deformed when used on larger screens. So Clem is looking at a new built-plate interface that floats the resin on a layer of denser, immiscible liquid. It’s an interesting idea that is still clearly in the proof-of-concept phase, but we look forward to seeing what progress Clem makes.

Morse Code Catches Google Swiping Lyrics

We think of Morse code in terms of dots and dashes, but really it’s a kind of binary code. Those symbols might as well be 0s and 1s or any other pair of characters. That attribute is exactly what led to a sting operation a music lyric site called Genius.com pulled on Google. At issue was a case of song lyrics that had allegedly been stolen by the search giant.

Song lyric sites — just like Google — depend on page views to make revenue. The problem is that in a Google search the lyrics appear on the search page, so there is no longer much incentive to continue to the song lyric site. That’s free enterprise for you, right? It is, but there was a problem. It appears that Google — or, according to Google, one of their partners — was simply copying Genius.com’s lyrics. How does Genius know the song lyrics were copied? According to news reports in the Wall Street Journal and other sources, they used Morse code.

Continue reading “Morse Code Catches Google Swiping Lyrics”

Are Patent Claims Coming For Your WS2812?

There are some components which are used within our sphere so often as to become ubiquitous, referred to by their part number without the need for a hasty dig through a data sheet to remind oneself just what we are talking about. You can rattle a few of them off, the 555, the 741, the ESP8266, and so on.

In the world of LEDs, the part that most immediately springs to mind is the Worldsemi WS2812 addressable LED. This part consists of three LEDs in red, green, and blue, all in the same package with a serial interface allowing a chain of individually addressable multicolour lights to be created. We’ve seen them in all sorts of places, and if you don’t recognise the part number then perhaps you will by one of the names they’re sold under: Neopixel.

Yesterday we received an email from our piratical friends at Pimoroni, the British supplier of all forms of electronic goodies. Among their range they have a reasonable number of products containing WS2812s, and it was these products that had formed the subject of an unexpected cease-and-desist letter. APA Electronic are the manufacturer of the APA102 addressable LED (which you may know as the Dotstar), and their cease-and-desist asking for the products to be withdrawn from sale rests on their holding a patent for an addressable multicolour LED. We’d be very interested to hear whether any other suppliers of WS2812-based parts have received similar communications.

US patent number 8094102B2 is indeed a patent for a “Single full-color LED with driving mechanism”, which does look a lot like a WS2812. But as always, such things are not as cut-and-dried as they might first appear. The LED in the patent for example relies upon a clock line for its operation, while the Worldsemi part doesn’t. I am not a lawyer so I’d hesitate to call this a baseless and speculative move, but I suspect that there will be plenty over which the two semiconductor companies can duke it out in the courtroom.

It’s fair to say that a large part of the ethos of our movement shares something with that of the world of open-source, so news of legal manoeuvres such as this are never likely to go down well. We’re small fry in this context and our commercial influence on APA102 or WS2812 sales will be minimal, but inevitably APA’s standing in our eyes will be diminished. Companies such as Pimoroni are not the target but a piece of collateral damage in a battle between manufacturers.

Whether the patent has been violated or not can only be decided by the courts. It is not uncommon for patent holders to go after companies selling the “infringing” products in hopes that rather than risk a costly court battle, they simply adhere to the demands, in this case buying parts from APA and not from Worldsemi.

So, if you rely on addressable LEDs, watch out! There may be trouble ahead.

Header image: Tristan Robitaille [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Hack Space Debris At Your Peril

Who has dibs on space debris? If getting to it were a solved problem, it sure would be fun to use dead orbital hardware as something of a hacker’s junk bin. Turns out there is some precedent for this, and regulations already in place in the international community.

To get you into the right frame of mind: it’s once again 2100 AD and hackers are living in mile-long space habitats in the Earth-Moon system. But from where do those hackers get their raw material, their hardware? The system abounds with space debris, defunct satellites from a century of technological progress. According to Earth maritime law, if space is to be treated like international waters then the right of salvage would permit them to take parts from any derelict. But is space like international waters? Or would hacking space debris result in doing hard time in the ice mines of Ceres?

Continue reading “Hack Space Debris At Your Peril”

Nominal Lumber Sizes Land Home Depot And Menards In Hot Water

Hard times indeed must have fallen upon the lawyers of the American mid-west, for news reaches us of a possible class-action lawsuit filed in Chicago that stretches the bounds of what people in more gainful employment might consider actionable. It seems our legal eagles have a concern over the insufficient dimensions of their wood, and this in turn has caused them to apply for a class action against Home Depot and Menards with respect to their use of so-called nominal sizing in the sale of lumber.

If you have ever bought commercial lumber you will no doubt understand where this is going. The sawmill takes a piece of green wood straight from the forest, and cuts it to a particular size. It is then seasoned, either left to dry out and mature in the open air or placed in a kiln to achieve the same effect at a more rapid pace. This renders it into the workable lumber you expect to use, but causes a shrinkage of the wood that since it depends on variables such as moisture can not be accurately quantified. Thus a piece of wood cut by the sawmill at 4 inches square could produce a piece of seasoned lumber somewhere near 3.5 inches square. It would thus be sold as having only a nominal size of 4 inches This has been the case as long as commercial lumber has been produced, we’d guess for something in the region of a couple of centuries, and is thus unlikely to be a surprise to anyone in the market for lumber.

So, back to the prospective lawsuit. Once the hoots of laughter from the entire lumber, building, and woodworking industries have died down, is their contention that a customer being sold a material of dimension 3.5 inches as 4 inches is being defrauded a valid one? We are not lawyers here at Hackaday, but we’d expect the long-established nature of nominal lumber sizing to present a tough obstacle to their claim, as well as the existence of other nominally sized products in the building industry such as rolled steel joists. Is it uncharitable of us to characterise the whole escapade as a frivolous fishing exercise with the sole purpose of securing cash payouts? Probably not, and we hope the judges in front of whom this is likely to land agree with us.

If you have any thoughts on this case, especially if you have a legal background, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Sawn lumber image: By Bureau of Land Management (Oregon_BLM_Forestry_10) [CC BY 2.0].

Impression Products V. Lexmark International: A Victory For Common Sense

A few months ago we reported on a case coming before the United States Supreme Court that concerned recycled printer cartridges. Battling it out were Impression Products, a printer cartridge recycling company, and Lexmark, the printer manufacturer. At issue was a shrinkwrap licence on inkjet cartridges — a legal agreement deemed to have been activated by the customer opening the cartridge packaging — that tied a discounted price to a restriction on the cartridge’s reuse.

It was of concern to us because of the consequences it could have had for the rest of the hardware world, setting a potential precedent such that any piece of hardware could have conditions still attached to it when it has passed through more than one owner, without the original purchaser being aware of agreeing to any legal agreement. This would inevitably have a significant effect on the work of most Hackaday readers, and probably prohibit many of the projects we feature.

We are therefore very pleased to see that a few days ago the Supremes made their decision, and as the EFF reports, it went in favor of Impression Products, and us, the consumer.  In their words, when a patent owner:

…chooses to sell an item, that product is no longer within the limits of the monopoly and instead becomes the private individual property of the purchaser, with the rights and benefits that come along with ownership.

In other words, when you buy a printer cartridge or any other piece of hardware, it is yours to do with as you wish. Continue reading “Impression Products V. Lexmark International: A Victory For Common Sense”

The GNU GPL Is An Enforceable Contract At Last

It would be difficult to imagine the technological enhancements to the world we live in today without open-source software. You will find it somewhere in most of your consumer electronics, in the unseen data centres of the cloud, in machines, gadgets, and tools, in fact almost anywhere a microcomputer is used in a product. The willingness of software developers to share their work freely under licences that guarantee its continued free propagation has been as large a contributor to the success of our tech economy as any hardware innovation.

Though open-source licences have been with us for decades now, there have been relatively few moments in which they have been truly tested in a court. There have been frequent licence violations in which closed-source products have been found to contain open-source software, but they have more often resulted in out-of-court settlement than lengthy public legal fights. Sometimes the open-source community has gained previously closed-source projects, as their licence violations have involved software whose licence terms included a requirement for a whole project in which it is included to have the same licence. These terms are sometimes referred to as viral clauses by open-source detractors, and the most famous such licence is the GNU GPL, or General Public Licence. If you have ever installed OpenWRT on a router you will have been a beneficiary of this: the project has its roots in the closed-source firmware for a Linksys router that was found to contain GPL code.

Now we have news of an interesting milestone for the legal enforceability of open-source licences, a judge in California has ruled that the GPL is an enforceable contract. Previous case-law had only gone as far as treating GPL violations as a copyright matter, while this case extends its protection to another level.

The case in question involves a Korean developer of productivity software, Hancom Office, who were found to have incorporated the open-source Postscript and PDF encoder Ghostscript into their products without paying its developer a licence fee. Thus their use of Ghostscript falls under the GPL licencing of its open-source public version, and it was  on this basis that Artifex, the developer of Ghostscript, brought the action.

It’s important to understand that this is not a win for Artifex, it is merely a decision on how the game can be played. They must now go forth and fight the case, but that they can do so on the basis of a contract breach rather than a copyright violation should help them as well as all future GPL-licenced developers who find themselves in the same position.

We’re not lawyers here at Hackaday, but if we were to venture an opinion based on gut feeling it would be that we’d expect this case to end in the same way as so many others, with a quiet out-of-court settlement and a lucrative commercial licencing deal for Artifex. But whichever way it ends the important precedent will have been set, the GNU GPL is now an enforceable contract in the eyes of the law. And that can only be a good thing.

Via Hacker News.

GNU logo, CC-BY-SA 2.0.