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Archive: Alan Sipress

Posted at 2:16 PM ET, 06/18/2007

Internet Review for Patents Goes Live

After months of anticipation, the agency responsible for issuing patents has started opening its doors to the Internet, launching a wiki-like review process for patent applications.

As of last Friday, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office began allowing applicants for patents -- specifically in computer technology -- to post their proposed inventions on line. The pilot review program, organized by New York Law School's Institute for Information and Policy, permits technical experts to submit annotated information that could help decide whether the invention deserves a patent.

The final decision will continue to rest with the agency's own patent examiners. But Jon Dudas, the agency's director, said his examiners make the best decisions when they have the best information.

If the year-long experiment is successful, it could be extended to patent applications in fields outside computer technology.

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Posted at 3:33 PM ET, 06/14/2007

The Judge Dissents on Patent Reform

As Congress wrestles with legislation aimed at overhauling the U.S. patent system for the first time in half a century, the chief federal judge assigned to patent cases has weighed in. And he's raised serious concerns about one of the most far-reaching proposals.

The patent reform bill now being considered by Senate and House committees includes a provision revising the way that damages are calculated in the case of patent infringement. The proposal says the damages should be based on the value only of the patented invention and not on the whole product using the invention. So for instance, if a tech company violates someone else's patent on a software program by marketing a computer that includes this program without paying proper royalties, the company would be ordered to pay a fine based on the value of the program. Today, the company could be forced to pay greater damages based on the overall value of the computer.

Large tech companies that are out front in advocating the patent bill say they favor this new approach, called apportionment, because it limits their liability when they accidentally violate others' patents.

But Chief Judge Paul R. Michel, who presides over the special federal court assigned to hear the appeals of patent cases, said the proposed revision -- which he said would "radically change the law" -- would prove extremely costly and time consuming.

In a letter last week to the staff of the House Judiciary Committee, Michel noted that judges can already use an approach to apportion damages when they see fit. But he disagreed with the bill's proposal making apportionment mandatory, saying the result would be severe court delays, higher court costs and greater uncertainty over how to apply the law.

By contrast, he said the existing approach to damages has been refined over decades of individual court decisions. "This body of law is highly stable and well understood by litigators as well as judges," he wrote.


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Posted at 12:19 PM ET, 05/23/2007

IP in Thailand: Who's the Real Pirate?

Once an epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, Thailand won international acclaim in recent years for its aggressive health campaign to address HIV, reducing the prevalence of infections and improving treatment for those with the virus. But when Thailand announced last year that it was seeking to cut the cost of treatment by allowing the sale of generic versions of two drugs for fighting HIV, the U.S. government and pharmaceutical industry yelled foul.

At the heart of this dispute are a pair of questions: When can patents be overridden for the sake of public health? And does violating patents now end up quashing the innovative drive that leads to life-saving medicine later on?

Thailand has been in negotiations with Abbott Laboratories and Merck & Co., which own the rights to the drugs, to see if they can reach a deal. But the deadlock continues. U.S. officials have alleged that Thailand is undercutting respect for patents. They put the kingdom on a watch list that could weaken its international trading position. Against this backdrop, Thai Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla led a high-level delegation this week to Washington for urgent talks with U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and U.S. Deputy Trade Representative John K. Veroneau.

Between meetings, Mongkol and his seven-member entourage stopped by Tuesday afternoon to see us at the Washington Post to talk about Thailand's take on intellectual property.

Mongkol and his aides told us they understand the importance of patents. They say they're wary of undermining innovation. But they say the poor of Thailand cannot afford the AIDS drugs, which cost about $2,200 per year of treatment. Thailand's goal is to create a tiered pricing system with the country's middle-class and foreign residents paying market rates while the poor get the drugs for much less.

Thailand says it can get generic versions of Abbott's Kaletra and Merck's Stocrin from India and may also produce these domestically. If these companies want to do business in Thailand, they should offer their drugs for no more than 5 percent over the generic cost, he said.

As our session with the minister continued, it took a provocative twist, raising questions about who really respects IP. The conversation turned to another dispute, this one over bird flu. Developing countries, led by Indonesia and including Thailand, have criticized the global system under which governments share samples of the avian flu virus with the World Health Organization and its collaborating labs. Studying these samples is crucial for understanding the virus, mapping its progress and perhaps predicting the outbreak of a pandemic that could kill tens of millions of people worldwide.

But the virus samples are also used by drug companies to make vaccines which most developing countries can't afford. In his 66 years of life, Mongkol said he'd never had a regular flu shot. "It's too expensive for me," the minister said.

Indonesia and Thailand, on the front line of the bird flu epidemic, say they never gave their permission for the virus samples to be used commercially and refused to send any more to the WHO until their interests are protected. Thailand wants all countries to be guaranteed a minimum supply of vaccine.

Dr. Suwit Wibulpolprasert, Thailand's senior advisor on disease control, told us that the world has been robbing developing countries of their rights by using the virus samples without permission. He noted that the U.S. and other developed countries get upset when their intellectual property is pirated by developing countries, such as when CDs, DVDs and software get copied illegally in Asia. Now, Washington is also upset about violations of the patents for the AIDS drugs.

What about the rights of developing countries to their virus samples, he asked. Using these samples without providing a benefit to the countries of origin is nothing less, he said, than "biopiracy."

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Posted at 2:51 PM ET, 05/17/2007

Special Envoy to the Dictionary Wars

Over the last decade, the number of lawsuits over contested patents has doubled. These court battles can cost a mint to fight and even more to lose. They deprive the company holding the patent of the certainty it needs to make productive use of the invention.

Often, the dispute comes down to words, to the definitions of very specific terms in the patent. The result is that there are now "dictionary wars" over what things mean. Plaintiffs produce one dictionary with a definition they find favorable. Defendants muster another.

About a third of all patent appeals are reversed on appeal because the higher court judges disagree about how the lower court construed the patent, often coming to a different conclusion about what the words in the patent should mean. That's very much the issue, for instance, in Vonage Holdings' appeal this spring of a federal court ruling that the Internet telephone company violated three patents owned by Verizon.

Now, a young lawyer in Milwaukee has suggested a solution that could achieve a truce in the dictionary wars. Justin E. Gray, just one year out of Northwestern University School of Law and now an associate at Foley & Lardner in Milwaukee, has called for the creation of a "Dictionary of Common Patent Term Usage."

Gray suggested a kind of online Wikipedia for patent terms assembled from the expertise of specialists in a range of technical fields. Some of the definitions would be from the arcane arts of engineering and science. Some would be general terms, like the word "adjacent," he told me. Does adjacent mean "close to" or "actually physically touching" or something else?

Unless patent applicants explicitly provide another definition for a term, the online dictionary would become the final reference. It would become the default dictionary used by patentees, the U.S. patent and trademark office and the courts, Gray explained in debuting his proposal in an article for IP Law 360, an online newswire about intellectual property.

"The Dictionary of Common Patent Term Usage would minimize, if not eliminate, all 'dictionary wars' that occur both in district and the Federal Circuit," he wrote.

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Posted at 10:12 AM ET, 05/10/2007

Yahoo Sheds Some Baggage

Within the last week, Yahoo has announced it's retiring a pair of its offerings: Yahoo Auctions in the United States and Canada and the Yahoo Photos service. Both had fallen far behind other choices on the Web.

The auction site has failed to make inroads against eBay, which has long had online auctions locked up. The photo site, meantime, has proven a poor alternatives to Flickr, a photo-sharing site snatched up by Yahoo itself two years ago.

The decisions to shutter these two sites were not unrelated. Nor are they isolated incidents. They fit into Yahoo efforts unveiled in December to reorganize the company, shuffle management and make up ground on Internet rival, Google.

"Yahoo is continuing to realign our resources to focus on core strategic priorities," company spokeswoman Meagan Busath said in explaining the photo and auction decisions. "We're repositioning some of our products."

In the case of Yahoo Photos, Busath said the company realized users were no longer content simply to preserve their digital memories but wanted the kind of Web 2.0 capability to share them in a social networking context. Flickr fit that description. Yahoo now plans in the coming months to help its users move their photos over.

But what Yahoo executives really have in mind when they speak of core priorities is more than Flickr. Most of all it's Panama, the new online advertising program that Yahoo is banking on to counter Google. So far, Panama's performance is disappointing. But Yahoo executives say the contest for online advertising dollars is still in the early rounds.

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A Call to Robotic Arms

Microsoft's quarterly earnings released last week were so robust they surprised even Wall Street analysts. Company executives attributed the success to strong early sales of Vista, the new version of Microsoft's marquee Windows operating system. Yet this news did not quiet the incessant questions: Can the software giant keep...

By Alan Sipress | May 3, 2007; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (1)

When the Chips Are Down

3G is the next wave in cell phone technology, an advance that is already allowing users to exchange email, browse the Web and, most notably, watch video on their phones. For providers of cell phone service, 3G is the future. But that future has recently grown uncertain. In the relatively...

By Alan Sipress | April 26, 2007; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Falco: AOL is Back

Six months after he took the helm at AOL, Randy Falco says the company has turned the corner, successfully shedding its former subscription business model for an open approach supported by advertising. "The headline is AOL is back," he said in an interview on the eve of today's "First Look"...

By Alan Sipress | April 17, 2007; 01:06 PM ET | Comments (0)

Patently Clear

For more than four months now, a small - but not inconsequential - group of U.S. Supreme Court watchers has been waiting anxiously for a ruling in the most important recent case you've probably never heard of. There have been repeated reports of an imminent ruling and they've all,...

By Alan Sipress | April 10, 2007; 03:58 PM ET | Comments (0)

Internet Review for Patents Draws Near

With the agency responsible for issuing patents now planning to throw open its review process to the Internet, the latest word is that this wiki-type experiment is expected to start around June 1. New York Law School Professor Beth Simone Noveck, who heads a team designing the pilot project,...

By Alan Sipress | March 26, 2007; 04:54 PM ET | Comments (0)

Operation Double Trouble

In large parts of Asia, aficionados of American cinema get bragging rights if they're the first on their block to put their hands on a newly released movie. Often, they succeed even before the film is out in their country. Some of the DVDs are copies covertly recorded with video...

By Alan Sipress | March 21, 2007; 06:00 AM ET | Comments (1)

No Olive Branch for the IP Wars

The big news in the tech world today is the $1 billion lawsuit by entertainment conglomerate Viacom against the video Web site YouTube and its parent company, Google, for allegedly infringing copyrights by showing television programs online without permission. But as the lawyers struggle to define intellectual property rights...

By Alan Sipress | March 13, 2007; 02:25 PM ET | Comments (0)

Gates: U.S. Shutting Out Generation of Einsteins

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates brought his dire warnings about the future of American competitiveness to the Senate this morning, telling Sen. Edward "Ted" M. Kennedy's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that tight visa policies are costing the United States some of the world's brightest thinkers. "America has always...

By Alan Sipress | March 7, 2007; 11:30 AM ET | Comments (85)

Dispatches from the IP Wars

As corporate America has learned to do business in today's Idea Economy, so have American lawyers. Intellectual property is becoming ever more central to the success of business. So it's not surprising that court battles over patents and other forms of intellectual property have increased dramatically over the last...

By Alan Sipress | March 5, 2007; 01:57 PM ET | Comments (0)

Windows Up On Ray Ozzie

If you're the man who replaced Bill Gates, you're sure to inherit a certain mystique and engender intense interest both inside Microsoft and out. But since Ray Ozzie took over as the company's chief software architect this year, he has studiously maintained a low public profile that has fueled curiosity...

By Leslie Walker | November 9, 2006; 07:23 AM ET | Comments (0)

From Web 2.0: Video YouWho?

YouTube is so last month. Sure, this Web sensation became synonymous with online video less than a year after it started and then took our breath away when its twenty-something founders sold out to Google four weeks ago for $1.65 billion. But other Internet video entrepreneurs are already looking ahead...

By Leslie Walker | November 8, 2006; 07:12 AM ET | Comments (0)

Blogger Profile: Alan Sipress

Alan Sipress is a newcomer to the technology team but not to tech. As a foreign correspondent in Southeast Asia during the last four years, he saw how mobile phone text messaging is transforming politics. Activists from Indonesia to the Philippines press their social revolutions via SMS while cabinet ministers...

By washingtonpost.com Editors | October 18, 2006; 12:50 PM ET | Comments (0)

 

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