Nov 212012
 

I had an uncle who was a genius with wood. He had his own workshop in the garage lined with hundreds of woods – sheets, planks, 1-by’s, 2-by’s and 4-by’s; soft and hard, of every conceivable grain. He knew joinery at such a level that he’d put the guy from American Woodshop to shame. If you could chop it down, he could make it into anything you wanted requiring only a cursory description of what it was. All of this was 100% self-taught.

Outside of his garage, my uncle came off as anything but a genius. He was what we used to call “Un-PC”. If my uncle didn’t say one thing to offend at least one family member over the course of a gathering – actually, that never happened.

My point is being a genius in one pursuit doesn’t necessarily carry over, which I think has a very common-sense explanation. Specializing in one thing to a degree that makes you better at it than anyone else is a life’s work. Cue Richard Stallman talking about software patents at a recent University of Virginia conference on the topic. From my friends at Ars Technica:

“So many stupid insults—and mistakes!” shouted Richard Stallman, the father of the free software movement. “I proposed a way to solve the problem! It’s elegant, and it gets right to the point. Your criticisms are completely wrong.”

His solution? Ban all software patents.

Back to Ars:

In Stallman’s view, the idea that society might be able to eliminate “bad patents” while keeping good ones is a kind of Jedi mind trick. Offering patents as a reward for software development—a system where the prize is a right to shut down someone else—is fatally flawed.

“Consider the MP3 patent,” said Stallman. “That caused a lot of harm. It’s not trivial, it came from a research institute. But we can fund research institutes in other ways.”

The deprivation of some unnamed technology doesn’t excuse a system that allows some developers to be subject to legal attacks, Stallman continued. We could live without those things. “Yes, we can be better off without certain things,” said Stallman, finishing up his lecture to a flustered Duffy. “Maybe it wouldn’t be quite as good, but we would all be okay. None of us would be shafted.”

You’ll quickly pick up on a theme here. Stallman’s level of absolutist rhetoric is a little short on detail, but rich with summary-level generalization. Fatally flawed how? Has progress in software ground to a halt because of patents? “We can be better off without certain things”? What certain things? “Maybe it wouldn’t be quite as good, but we would all be okay. None of us would be shafted.”? So Stallman is conceding that the competitive advantage of being able to protect your innovations has actually improved our lives more than the alternative free-for-all? I don’t even know what the “it” he referrs to as “not being quite as good” is, but who is Richard Stallman to be the arbiter of how “okay” “it” is?

Another humorous bit from Ars, recounting Stallman’s appearance at another patent conference held at Santa Clara University:

His was the first talk on the agenda—and the only one of the day to not be streamed. “Streaming online would require use of [the] Microsoft Silverlight plug-in, which would pressure people to use proprietary software,” explained Andrew Chin, the law professor who introduced Stallman. “Dr. Stallman considers it wrong to pressure people to do that.” (The crowd was told a recording would be made available later in OGG or WebM format.)

This must be what Stallman is talking about when he says “Maybe it wouldn’t be quite as good, but we would all be okay.” It’s amazing that the streets aren’t lined with Molotov-toting protesters insisting on a software patent ban now.

If you drill down into Stallman’s core reasoning, the focus is on the “parts” of software. Bad analogy alert:

Patenting the math in software, at its core, wasn’t that different from patenting music, which must build on itself by necessity.

“Beethoven had lots of great ideas, and knew how to use them effectively,” Stallman continued. “He combined his new ideas with lots of familiar ideas, so that they were not so alien and incomprehensible that they were rejected. They shocked people for a while, but then people got used to them.

“The idea that anyone could, or would have to, reinvent music from zero is absurd,” he said. “It’s the same with computing.”

First of all, musicians and labels get sued all the time for lifting riffs from prior work. This hasn’t resulted in the need to reinvent music. Second of all, if we’re going to be all reductionist, aren’t all pharmaceuticals just re-jiggering of stuff you could find in any periodic table? I guess we should abolish those patents as well. The multiple billions of dollars invested by these companies to research their assets would probably push ahead full-steam without any IP protection. We’d probably be okay. Richard Stallman says so.

“The idea of really solving a problem strikes people as radical,” said Stallman.

If one defines “really” solving things with absolutist mandates, we wouldn’t call them “problems”.

“People think, we’ve got to look for partial solutions… well that’s a mistake. It wouldn’t do the whole job, and it would be harder to get it passed.”

As opposed to Stallman’s nuclear option, which would breeze through any private sector and legislative opposition. I wonder if Stallman even knows how many branches of government there are in this country.

“There are lots of software developers, they’re all threatened, and if we propose to protect them all, they will all have a reason to support it. Let’s propose a real solution.”

And now for our special mystery guest:

Stallman shared the stage with a surprising fellow speaker: Google general counsel Kent Walker.

Surprising? Show of hands?

“The patent arena is not a pretty place to be right now,” said Walker. “The troll problem is big, and getting bigger,” a growing tax on innovation. “Some of these are bottom-of-the-barrel patents,” he continued. “They cover common practices on the Internet, like showing an ad before a piece of content.” (That was likely a description of the patent granted to Ultramercial.)

Stallman and Walker should take their act on the road. Stallman is bad cop, Walker is slick cop. Scare the crap out of people with Stallman, who thinks that no software patent should exist, then follow up with the much more reasonable Walker and his “Modest Proposal.” Let’s start by making patents that have a “competitive advantage” subject to the same kinds of terms containing standards-essential patents.

On the lure of Stallman’s schtick:

I first started to understand the appeal of Stallman when I heard him speak at a 2007 event at San Francisco State University, especially his appeal to young people. He speaks in a language often missing from discussions of seemingly abstract concepts like patent laws. Lawyers speak about what is legal and what should be legal; Stallman begins with philosophy, with ethics, with how you should treat your neighbor.

In other words, Stallman begins at 30,000 feet and never drops to an altitude that would provide any insight into actually solving the problem.

Can a person program a new solution to a problem? Why should anyone be able to stop such a thing?

If the solution is novel, they should be able to. If the solution is ripped wholesale off the backs of someone that created it before you *cough* Android *cough*, then no – you shouldn’t be able to. Stallman reads like a shitty Platonic exchange: “Surely we can all agree on this…Warp 9…QED”

Since then, his views haven’t changed much. It’s the reception that has changed, he said; more companies, like Rackspace, are coming out against patenting software. Apple, the “number one patent aggressor” in Stallman’s view, is winning eye-popping verdicts against competitors—and losing big to patent trolls.

And who, by all reasonable accounts, is the most popular and innovative hardware/software company on the planet? Exactly.

We’re exposed every day to the lure of the absolute. Clean lines, perfect endings – wouldn’t life be so much simpler if we could all just aspire to our maximum potential without being hindered by laws, legislation, data caps and rush hour traffic? But reality isn’t absolute; it’s subject to the perspectives of others. When enough of them agree on a certain perspective, we refer to them generally as “rights”. The right to protect one’s property, intellectual or otherwise, is something we value highly in this country. And respecting other people’s property sometimes involves compromise. Treaties are compromise, alliances are compromise. Any contract you enter into is compromise. Life is compromise. Anyone trying to pave over the status quo with straight lines isn’t thinking realistically about a solution to the problem.

  11 Responses to “Richard Stallman: a Voice of Reason in the Patent Wars”

  1. “You’ll quickly pick up on a theme here. Stallman’s level of absolutist rhetoric is a little short on detail, but rich with summary-level generalization.”

    guess again, most of the people involved in the debate are actually more than aware of stallman’s views and writings on the subject, thus what might seem to you as summary-level generalizations have already been expressed in detail through and through… just try to keep up, instead of expecting to learn everything from a short reply in a time constrained conference.

    ” So Stallman is conceding that the competitive advantage of being able to protect your innovations has actually improved our lives more than the alternative free-for-all?”

    so you suffer from reading comprehension?

    “but who is Richard Stallman to be the arbiter of how “okay” “it” is?but who is Richard Stallman to be the arbiter of how “okay” “it” is?”

    so who are you to decide whether stallman is or isn’t a good arbiter, displaying a level of ignorance of his arguments as such?

    “First of all, musicians and labels get sued all the time for lifting riffs from prior work”
    Beethoven wasn’t… no wonder an idiot of your caliber fails to see that the analogy isn’t a bad one, you just don’t get it…

    “aren’t all pharmaceuticals just re-jiggering of stuff you could find in any periodic table”
    all the meanwhile, trying to come up with similar formulas on their own in order to patent it which results in the work being repeated needlessly by tens of mega corporations, until one of them gets a working solution and tries to make up for this excess spending by overcharging the customers.

    well, i could go on but given your lack of grasp regarding the issue, this makes exposing your incompetence a redundant task .

  2. “As opposed to Stallman’s nuclear option, which would breeze through any private sector and legislative opposition. I wonder if Stallman even knows how many branches of government there are in this country.”

    i wonder if you understand ad-hominem attacks are so counterproductive when you are trying to portray your ideological opponent as the irrational one. congrats on shooting yourself in the foot. also, the beginning sentence is not addressing the argument, but the perception of it by others. oh and we get you’re a sorry excuse of an apple fanboy, but leave the google hate out of your commentary if you don’t want to come off as a complete fool. salvage some credibility while you still can you know ;)

    “In other words, Stallman begins at 30,000 feet and never drops to an altitude that would provide any insight into actually solving the problem.”

    funny how even after your arguments have been debunked so easily, you will insist on them. the garbage which you would call the last paragraph of your post isn’t even worth addressing…. is it the best you can do to just pose as the “voice of reason”, when your stupid arguments are anything but?

  3. I wonder if english is your first language? It’s like you took an ESL translation of moronic platitudes and ran it through a thesaurus. It also looks like you’re familiar with commenterese like the message board favorite “ad-hominem”, even though you apparently don’t know what it means. Nice transition from accusing someone of ad-hominem attacks 10 words before launching your own, by the way.

    You’ve debunked nothing. To accurately measure my level of concern regarding the way I come off to you, anonymous commenter, would require a new, subatomic measure of nothingness. Thanks for commenting though. ;)

  4. yes english is not my native language, but that is no excuse for you to not understand the most basic things… such as insulting stallman by way of insinuating that he doesn’t understand basic civics/politics, being rightly described as ad-hominem. surely this must not be a new concept for you altogether.

    you also failed to address any of the points brought forward… starting with your baseless accusations that stem from your own ignorance of the subject, continuing with your obviously flawed understanding of stallman’s argument where he argues specifically about the software referring to as “not as good”, not our lives in general… a habit you continue with misunderstanding/misrepresenting the beethoven analogy and complete the trifecta with a fake pretension of a “rational human being addressing to out intellect”… which is nothing but a lame attempt at an appeal to emotion…

    I hope you’ll express gratitude for this one as much as you did for the rest…

  5. btw, I hope I am not asking too much of you by pointing at your most obvious mistakes and asking you to reconsider your opinion which is obviously based on a very limited and flawed understanding of stallman and the issue at hand… well, you can either be dismissive and pretend to be above it or face the fact that you got it wrong!

    anyway, sorry to clutter up your comments section, an edit feature would have been nice.

  6. It’s not hard for even a Luddite Mac user like me to understand Stallman’s argument. I understand his analogies. He doesn’t think software patents should exist. It’s a naive argument that ignores the amount of effort that goes into crafting great (and some not-so-great) products. I don’t agree with him.

    In this country, we take property rights very seriously – intellectual as well as physical. If someone – or a corporate collection of someones – invents something, they have a right to some exclusive use of that something for some period of time. I’m not going to stand here and tell you that the system that protects those rights isn’t abused; that’s clearly not the case. What I am telling you is that such a system is necessary to protect innovation and that an absence of such a system would harm it far more than it would help it. The Beethoven analogy is humorous since Beethoven was dead long before his music could leverage such a system of protection, so I agree that I’m missing its point, if there is one. Likewise, the system that protects IP will exist long after Stallman – and all of us – are dead.

    People show the same indulgence for what Stallman says that they do for Steve Wozniak – for similar reasons. Both have tech credentials that have cemented their place in history. They were individuals that individually created – or helped create – great things. Their focus is very narrow. That’s not how things get made today. Stallman thinks it’s worse. I say it isn’t. You’re as entitled to your opinion as I am mine.

  7. First of all, let me start by saying that my initial response was a little too harsh than I intended it to be. I was halfway asleep only to be brought back by coffee…

    “It’s not hard for even a Luddite Mac user like me to understand Stallman’s argument.”

    This is not the case from my perspective… You argued – based on one of his response to one speaker in one conference – that his “rhetoric is a little short on detail, but rich with summary-level generalization”, which either means you haven’t followed his arguments that he made in that conference or any of his other plethora of writings that can be found online, or worse you’re deliberately misrepresenting his views to portray him as an intellectually inept person.

    With all due respect, you don’t sound like someone who understands stallman, as evident by your following somewhat simplistic remarks: “It’s a naive argument that ignores the amount of effort that goes into crafting great (and some not-so-great) products”. Stallman doesn’t ignore this part of the equation, he believes some software developers will come up with other ways to create products and/or make a living while not restricting the freedom of the end users. Charging for support (such as Red Hat, Canonical), community driven donations (such as Humble Bundle, Wikipedia etc.), government financing (Unix) are just some examples for other models. Those who can’t adapt, like in any business that changes in time will have to find work elsewhere. You don’t see much carriage drivers around do you?

    As for the applicability of these models, you don’t seem to understand that the total cost of building a functional application changes in an open source environment. Whereas in the days of competing with Macromedia etc., Adobe -and it’s competitors would have had to work in isolated labs to come up with algorithms to do the same/similar things, the required manpower and subsequently the total cost in developing these applications amounted to a huge sum. Most open source projects -to which programmers contribute to the same body of code- have shown (such as in the cases of x264 or Linux kernel) that effort is concentrated on the projects that are gaining more public attention/appraise, thus with less total cost and manpower, the same goal can be achieved.

    A simple example for you to see this point clearly. There is one H.264 standard but plenty of encoder/decoder implementations (incl. Apple’s) which means around 10 companies wasted manpower and money to come up with lesser software to x264’s. Do we need 10+ H.264 implementations, 30+ Video Editors, 20+ browsers, 20+ FPS Game Engines or do we need software that is modular and highly configurable?

    “What I am telling you is that such a system is necessary to protect innovation and that an absence of such a system would harm it far more than it would help it.”

    Historical evidence disproves this statement easily… Americans “stole” patents from British Empire and continental Europe during it’s industrialization process, American engineers improved on British designs, in turn British “stole” them to improve their designs… Germany (19th C), France (19th C), Japan (50s), South Korea (60s), China (80s) etc. all started as copycats to become industrial economies and innovators themselves. Don’t even get me started on WW2 and the number of German patents which ended up in USA or USSR.

    Patents are the last bastion of protectionism for the competitively advantaged, only serving those who use them to stifle competition. Nowadays you can only buy a German car with double-clutch transmission (patented), nobody will have a chance to improve on that technology until the patent expires and VW Group has milked the technology dry. In a patent-free world, if the cost of undertaking this project didn’t pay off until their rivals had functional copycat counterparts, VW would have to go ahead and create partnerships, perhaps a consortium where the total cost of coming up with this technology and the cost to VW would be a fraction of what it is today, a further incentive to innovate with distributed and lowered risk.

    The question is how to deal with software companies to this date have played by the rules of the patent game set by the lawmakers, just to prevent getting sued themselves, or in some cases set the rules themselves to gain from it (Microsoft). They have made huge investments etc. which run the risk of losing their value the minute their patents become invalid. When the rules change, they will be given a roadmap to adjust and if necessary downsize etc., but ultimately the desire for wealth remains and the subsequent desire to adopt to acquire it will also do the same. Just as in the past companies used the patent system to gain advantage however they could, they will use the patent-free system to gain advantage however they can. Similarly raising taxes on the rich doesn’t kill their desire to acquire more wealth, it just makes them want to spend/invest more of their income.

    “The Beethoven analogy is humorous since Beethoven was dead long before his music could leverage such a system of protection, so I agree that I’m missing its point, if there is one.”

    Yes you are, and yes there is… Beethoven didn’t need copyrights (which stallman supports to a degree) to motivate him into composing music. There are always different motivators and different ways to trigger each motivator.

    I apologize for the lengthy reply, but I think we all deserve more than a caricatured version of the FSF argument.

  8. Stallman is brilliant when he confines himself to his area of expertise, much like my uncle. When he talks about stripping the tech world of IP protection like it’s a no-brainer, it’s a simplistic, delusional vision that will never be realized. Unless his body of work, which you seem to be very familiar with, comes to a different conclusion than “software patents should be eliminated”, I think I’ve got his schtick down pretty well, thanks.

    As for your belief that “charging for support”, “community-driven donations” and “government financing” will provide the same incentive to innovate as an IP-protected, market-driven competitive environment, well I guess it’s nice to dream. Why hasn’t Ubuntu captured the hearts and minds of the planet? Hint: the answer isn’t “evil patent trolls”. It’s because the vast majority of FSF offerings appeal to your “end users” – the .00001% who compile their own code. No one else wants to use it. That must be what Stallman means by “good enough”, right? That may work for you and Richard Stallman, but the population that wants to use vi as their work processor is a niche market, at best.

    The assertion that great software can be created by consolidating manpower, that may be true – to a point. But what are these people working for? Their “community-driven donations”? Please. Most of the great talent is working for money, you know, the thing that allows people not to have to hunt and gather. And you do know that many of these evil companies – Apple chief among them – contribute considerable resources to several open source projects. CUPS? KHTML? CalDAV? Bonjour? And guess who also contributes to the Linux kernel? Hint: it’s not Canonical. Novell, Intel and Microsoft – yes them. The top 30 developers contributed over 20% of the total 3.2 kernel release. 800 companies contributed over 70%. Your own examples contradict your point! I think the FSF community should reject all input from for-profit developers out of principle. Without all those patent-hoarders, nothing would get done – but hey: you’d all feel better about it, right?

    Which brings me to H.264. Based on my limited understanding, H.264 is codec; x264 is an encoder. And guess who put their muscle behind it by featuring it in their mobile devices? Apple. And guess who is responsible for its propagation as a standard? A lot of those nasty for-profit companies that make up the MPEG-LA consortium. As far as the fragmentation you mention in the software development business, I call that competition, which drives innovation. You think some coding combine is going to produce the level of software we enjoy today?

    All I will say about your “historical evidence” argument: conjunction is not causation. Attributing industrialization solely to the ability to freely use what may or may not have qualified as patentable is, well, simplistic. I guess that’s not surprising. As far as the patent on a clutch making it impossible to improve automobiles, I don’t think that has stopped the car from evolving, do you? And Beethoven? That was 240 years ago dude. That’s about as bad a cross-epoch analogy as I’ve ever read.

    As I’ve said, there are a number of companies that abuse the patent system. I write about them all the time. It’s not a perfect system, but a system is necessary. I haven’t heard anything from Stallman or yourself to make me think otherwise. If the FSF doesn’t want to come off as a caricature, maybe it shouldn’t back the simplistic ideas that make it sound like one.

  9. “Why hasn’t Ubuntu captured the hearts and minds of the planet?”

    Are you really this oblivious to the facts staring you in the face? We live in a software patent world, which skews the rules of the game in favor of those companies who make money by patenting their software to create little monopolies. This means the huge bulk of R&D that software gets in total is diverted into companies such as IBM, Apple and Microsoft. GNU/Linux in general and Ubuntu in specific is doing great with the very modest effort put into these projects. Hasn’t Android kicking iOS’ butt taught you any lessons as to the cost efficiency and marketability of open source platforms when they get a little bit of company support behind them or are you going to be a bitter fanboy about it and argue against the evidence?

    “That may work for you and Richard Stallman, but the population that wants to use vi as their work processor is a niche market, at best”

    We’ll talk when Apple has a text editor that is half as good as Emacs. Many developers I know are using Emacs as the default editor for Xcode.

    “But what are these people working for? Their “community-driven donations”?”

    Or their corporate paychecks, such as the developers at Citrix who are in the business of deploying virtualization systems all the meanwhile developing a completely FOSS product in XCP. They get their money from corporations who need support and training of IT personnel. A company or a number of companies in need of a CAD/Office software will go out and pay someone to write it, and it’s in their better interest if the software is FOSS because it allows them and others to work on the code, improving it. So don’t even tell me that the software would just vanish away if we stopped enforcing software patents. Perhaps some will, but given that the total amount of money wasted in the sector by the public subsidizing closed source methods of inefficiency, getting 80% of what we have while spending 50% of what we spend is in the better interest of the society.

    “The top 30 developers contributed over 20% of the total 3.2 kernel release. 800 companies contributed over 70%. Your own examples contradict your point!”

    No it doesn’t… unless you can come up with a claim of mine which says companies are evil and that they don’t contribute to open source projects. In fact, I was portraying a picture of a patent free world with companies in mind. So, you’re obviously fighting a strawman argument there, which I can’t help you with.

    “Without all those patent-hoarders, nothing would get done – but hey: you’d all feel better about it, right?”

    Let me just clarify further because you really seem to be confused: In a patent free society companies will not magically cease to exist. They will just be pushed to come up with and/or adopt different revenue models. Since it will not make sense for Apple or Microsoft to continue a closed source model, they’ll have to contribute more of their code to gain competitive advantage while still being able to make money by providing support and updates etc. just like RedHat does and since software patents are not copyrights, they will be able to come up with products under their own brand names, bundle their software with specific hardware to sell etc. In the end, efficiency will win.

    So here is the maths for you and people who think like you, simplified.

    Apple in a patent free world, will still need to bundle their computers with an OS, which will still need a kernel, so it will focus on contributing to FOSS projects such as the Linux/BSD kernel in an effort to get a low cost return. Because other companies are also interested and contributing Apple pays a fraction of what they pay to develop/improve a new kernel. This goes for any part of an OS, except for branding and configuration which gives Apple plenty of headroom to create an OS that is tailored to their specific vision and market, for a fraction of the cost. Apple customers won’t be paying extra to get Nvidia/ATI drivers to perform stably and efficiently etc. which means Apple can concentrate it’s efforts on doing what it does to bundle a slick machine with a user interface their customers like.

    You always ignore the parts where these companies will save a great deal of money by adopting existing code/standards instead of coming up with proprietary ones: Thunderbolt, PCI-Express, USB, Display Port ring any bells? Apple used to be in the business of proprietary connectors/protocols, I wonder why they gave that up /sarcasm.

    “Based on my limited understanding, H.264 is codec; x264 is an encoder.”

    H.264 is a specification, which generally describes how to compress/decompress video without giving a specific code for it, but the patent is for those methods which is why almost everyone, including Microsoft, have decided to be a part of the MPEG LA patent pool, as they fear something they do in their compression algorithms of their proprietary codecs is likely patented in this mega collection. Every implementation of H.264 specification is coded by the group/corporation, such as x264.

    “As far as the fragmentation you mention in the software development business, I call that competition”

    There is no competition in H.264 implementations, Apple’s QT H.264 is quite poor and only functions to get basic video in iOS devices, x264 is through and through the best out there. ps. Apple only pushed for the standard because of flash video threatening their mobile business profits.

    “Attributing industrialization solely to the ability to freely use what may or may not have qualified as patentable is, well, simplistic.”

    It would be, but then again I was only attributing the rapid industrialization and subsequent innovativeness of specific economies within specific time frames to a lack of patent enforcement, backed up by consistent historical data that disprove your thesis that patents promote innovation.

    “I don’t think that has stopped the car from evolving, do you?”

    It has in that specific direction.

    “It’s not a perfect system, but a system is necessary. I haven’t heard anything from Stallman or yourself to make me think otherwise. If the FSF doesn’t want to come off as a caricature, maybe it shouldn’t back the simplistic ideas that make it sound like one.”

    I would argue the opposite, and believe I have done it successfully. Perhaps you should stop blaming Stallman or me for not making a convincing argument but instead blame yourself for actively resisting to process the information you have been presented. The only caricature I see here is of a grown man calling himself a fanboy sticking to his convictions despite the overwhelming counter evidence and arguments. Well, this is the interwebs… perhaps I should have gotten used to it.

  10. I admit you argue your points well, hence my responses. You understand the tech landscape better than most of the dreck that pollutes my RSS feed. Kudos to you on that. Despite my snark, I really do appreciate well thought-out, well-argued counterpoints.

    I think we both understand the other’s position. I believe some form of IP protection is necessary for innovation to be profitable; you believe the opposite. Maybe someday the industry can come together and develop the caliber of software currently available under the existing patent system – maybe it will be better. I don’t think real innovators like Apple are satisfied with the current system anymore than Stallman or you are, but when faced with the prospect of abandoning a way to stop companies from reaping the benefits of things they developed altogether, they wouldn’t, nor should they.

    Good luck in your travels.

    -Jeremiah

  11. Thanks for the kind words, and once again I apologize for the unnecessary rudeness which had plagued quite a bit of my earlier commentary.

    Good luck to you as well.

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