Revised Paul Allen lawsuit continues to show what's wrong with tech patents
Four months after filing a laughably broad patent lawsuit against a Who's Who of tech companies--and only weeks after a judge tossed out its complaint for being too vague--Paul Allen's Interval Licensing is at it again.
The Seattle corporation, the surviving entity of the defunct Interval Research firm set up by the Microsoft co-founder in the mid 1990s, filed a revised complaint Tuesday against AOL, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, Yahoo and YouTube.
Interval's amended, 35-page filing (PDF) pads out its earlier 15-page complaint by specifying such features as Apple's Dashboard software, the notifications interface in Google's Android operating system and Netflix's viewing suggestions as infringing on Interval patents. It asks for unspecified damages from those companies as well as an injunction on them shipping any products with the allegedly infringing features.
(The four patents in question: "Browser for use in navigating a body of information, with particular application to browsing information represented by audiovisual data" [patent no. 6,263,507]; "Attention manager for occupying the peripheral attention of a person in the vicinity of a display device" [no. 6,034,652]; "Attention manager for occupying the peripheral attention of a person in the vicinity of a display device" [no. 6,788,314]; and "Alerting users to items of current interest" [6,757,682].)
As before, the features Interval claims continue to be insultingly generic. For instance, an allegation that AOL and Gmail's spam-filtering software infringes on an Interval patent because it is "based at least in part on a comparison between the new email and other emails that have been received." (Sure: Like nobody ever thought to make such a statistical comparison until Interval came along.) Later, it contends that when Netflix "generates a display of related content items" after "a user views a particular content item," that infringes on an Interval patent too. (Right, because the concept of a store or a catalog suggesting a related item to a shopper didn't exist until Interval scientists had a brainstorming session.)
And as before, Interval's suit doesn't target Microsoft or Amazon (which happens to pay rent to Allen's Vulcan Real Estate), even though both companies' products would seem to infringe on the same patents.
Bear in mind, I am not a lawyer. But I know a thing or two about the history of computing and the Internet. So I feel within my competency to suggest that Interval's patents are junk. They describe general concepts that should have been obvious to anybody of ordinary skill in this field in the mid 1990s--and for which it shouldn't be difficult to find "prior art" showing that other people had thought of the same thing years before. Had the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office provided the "high quality" examination of patent applications it promises, it's hard to see how these patents would have been granted in the first place.
But that Alexandria-based agency did grant them. So unless and until these patents get invalidated--which can take an absurdly long time--Interval can advance a legally plausible claim to have a property right on dynamically-updated Web sites and multitasking user interfaces. That covers most of the software platforms you use today. PaidContent.org's Joe Mullin phrased things well in a commentary yesterday (emphasis in the original):
If patent claims on such basic ideas are found to be valid, there are surely hundreds of other potential defendants that could be sued by Interval Licensing. Paul Allen would be essentially a tax collector for the internet.
That might be okay if you think that patents are an inalienable right that inventors deserve. But they're not. Patents, copyrights and other intellectual-property rights exist only to benefit society at large. That--not a notion that inventors or authors have a special right to make money off their work--constitutes the sole reason for their existence in this country.
What gives me a reason to spout such a radical notion? The United States Constitution, which in Section 8 of Article I grants Congress the authority to "promote the progress of science and useful arts." How so? By "securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." The former justifies the latter--not the other way around.
Would anybody now like to explain how a patent system that allows a company to claim it's invented an entire category of software and then drag a seemingly random selection of competing firms into expensive, time-consuming litigation promotes the progress of anything but the patent-law bar?
| December 30, 2010; 12:39 PM ET
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