The Supreme Court's ruling (PDF) Monday clarified one of the most basic definitions of what's patent-worthy, the "non-obviousness" requirement. (Yes, in intellectual-property law the definition of "obvious" is not always obvious.) That is, the court said that an invention can't just combine existing inventions in a predictable or logical way; in essence, the new thing, whatever it is, needs to have come as some sort of surprise to the market.
Since so many of the "innovations" protected by patents granted over the last couple of decades have lacked that basic quality, the Court's ruling could lead to a massive number of patents getting wiped off the map in reexamination proceedings or patent litigation. That may be a mess--but it should be a constructive, useful mess.
If you're interested in reading more about this topic, have a look at some of the analyses posted on the SCOTUSblog Web site.
I started out writing this column by taking a look at the specifics of the Verizon-Vonage lawsuit, but most of that detail got squeezed out of the story. In case you've been wondering:
* Verizon says it didn't file its lawsuit until 2006--four years after Vonage began signing up customers--because the details of Vonage's system didn't emerge until an SEC filing by that company in 2006. Said Verizon deputy general counsel John Thorne: "We first saw the detailed information about how its network works only a few weeks before we brought the suit."
* Vonage would not comment on any of the details of its case; my interview with their spokeswoman was exceedingly short.
* Verizon says its patents don't cover voice-over-Internet-Protocol service in general, just "very specific things" (Thorne's words) about the provision of it. But Verizon won't say if it will or won't sue other voice-over-Internet Protocol providers for infringing these patents.
* At one of those other providers, Vienna-based SunRocket, company president Lisa Hook professed confidence in her firm's patent position. She said only a few customers have expressed any anxiety, while others have e-mailed supportive messages along the lines of "you're going to be fine."
Are you a VoIP user? Do you feel better about things as a result of the Supreme Court's decision? Let me know in the comments! (Or stop by my Web chat at 2 this afternoon.)
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