Monday, August 30, 2010

29. paul allen vs everyone

paul allen, from forbes' billionaire list
early on when i started this silly little project i did a post touching on tech patent law, concerning apple, google, and htc.  i said then how tech patent lawsuits never fail to entertain, and recent times do nothing but provide more examples to support that.  during said recent times, litigation over patents has been on the upslope and it almost seems that there's more opportunity for business and profit in lawsuits than there is actual innovation or development of products and goods.  to highlight this, paul allen, one of the co-founders of microsoft, filed a lawsuit against AOL, apple, ebay, facebook, google, netflix, office depot, officemax, staples, yahoo! and youtube over four patents owned by his company interval research (and interval licensing, llc).

look at that list.  yep, that's right folks, paul allen just sued the internet.

the patents covered in the lawsuit pertain to things like recommending products or articles to a user based on what they've been looking at and what they're looking at right now.  i'm sure any of you that have ever used ebay  or netflix are familiar with their user recommendation systems.  i was actually surprised that amazon didn't make the list, as its user recommendation system is one that everyone has seen and used.  it's a pretty basic function in most e-commerce systems these days.  microsoft was also omitted from allen's attack, which of course makes sense since he still has active investments in the company.  as for amazon, the only link between them and allen is that they're based in his home town of seattle.  he's not having financial problems (i'm guessing) and is wealthy enough to answer warren buffet's call for the world's billionaires to donate large masses of their money.  so why drop this lawsuit now?

according to a public statement made by allen's man david postman, "interval research was an early, ground-breaking contributor to the development of the internet economy," citing its work with developing companies and technology transfers for patented tech.  he went on, "this lawsuit is necessary to protect our investment in innovation. we are not asserting patents that other companies have filed, nor are we buying patents originally assigned to someone else. these are patents developed by and for interval."

developed by and for interval.  interval research was dissolved in 2000, so it's been defunct for a decade.  neither interval licensing nor paul allen developed or produced these technologies, they just own "the ideas."  this still enables them to file an infringement suit against anyone for actually producing something that's close to it, even 10 years after the fact.  the four patents in question (6,263,507, 6,034,652, 6,788,314, and 6,757,682) don't look like much more than a series of flowcharts and a couple of mathematical formulas to me.  what if someone achieves the same end through different means?  are they legally actionable?  and what impact does that have on the tech and software industries?  mountains of additional money would have to be poured into legal budgets to protect against lawsuits of this kind instead of engineering and R&D, and where do you think they're going to make that money back?  that's right, it'll get passed down to the consumer.  personally i've been both the engineer with the cool ideas as well as the businessman trying to commercialize technology.  with that, in my head having to worry about lawsuits on patents from 10 years ago would get in the way of trying to come up with and produce products people want and can use, which is where it really counts.  a cool idea that can't be materialized, after all, is meaningless in the end.

i mean had the idea when i was 12 that it would be cool if i had some sensors on me that made my video game characters move like i did on screen.  if i somehow patented the idea back then, could i sue nintendo for a piece of their fat stacks of wii money now?

and some folks agree.  in response to the suit, a google spokesperson said that "innovation - not litigation - is the way to bring to market the kinds of products and services that benefit millions of people around the world."  harvard/duke/berkeley super professor vivek wadhwa agrees on that concept, and pushes for abolishment of software patents for similar reasons.

interval wants damages of course (amount undisclosed) and for these companies to stop using these technologies, or start paying them royalties to do so.  i hate to use a phrase that's thrown around a lot on the internet these days, but this whole situation reeks of patent trolling.  the defendants in this case clearly won't stop using these features in their e-commerce systems, which leaves only the option to kick more money over to allen.

that is, if he wins.

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