Law Comics: legal masterclass in webcomic form


With Law Comics, Cambridge law PhD candidate Julia Powles and illustrator Ilias Kyriazis are creating a masterclass in thorny issues of law...in webcomic form!

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Supreme Court invalidates software patent because it's a software patent

Supreme-Court

In a stunning verdict, the Supreme Court has tossed out a patent because it is a software patent, ruling that "merely requiring generic computer implementation fails to transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention" -- that is, adding "with a computer" doesn't make a new patentable invention. This is seismic, and not just because of what it says about whether software is patentable in America, but because of how it escalates the turf war between the Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit, which is the nation's "patent court."

The Supremes have spent more than a year pumping out decisions that fly in the face of the Federal Circuit's longstanding precedents, but the Federal Circuit judges have refused to consider Supreme Court decisions when hearing new cases -- meaning that every time the Federal Circuit goes against a Supreme Court judgment, you have to apply to have the case retried in front of the Supremes to get justice. Normal practice is for Federal judges to treat the Supremes as having the last word on US legal interpretation, so when the Supremes rule, all the lower courts follow.

There have been rumors about the Federal Circuit being abolished -- or having jurisdiction over patents yanked -- as the turf war has heated up. Federal Circuit judges have a reputation for being ideologically biased towards patents as a matter of course, wanting to use patents to solve every problem. It's classic regulatory capture -- patent judges tend to start life as patent lawyers, and are improperly chummy with the white-shoe lawyers who appear before them.

There's precious little expert analysis of the new judgment online yet. The Slashdot post recommends checking in with the Software Freedom Law Center for updates as everyone digests this decision.

Top US patent judge resigns after ethics breach

Judge Randall Rader, the top US patent judge, has resigned from the bench after he sent a letter to a patent attorney praising his courtroom appearance, inviting him to share the letter publicly. Radar is one of the top ambassadors for the US patent system, touring the world giving speeches extolling its virtues. He's planning to spend the rest of his life teaching patent law in global universities.

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Museum of patent models

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The Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum in Cazenovia, New York is the world's largest publicly-viewable private collection of models made as part of patent applications. The museum's new book, Inventing a Better Mousetrap, is due out later this year.

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What's the story with the Makerbot patent?

The 3D printing world is all a-seethe with the story that Makerbot supposedly filed a patent on a design from its Thingiverse community. As Cory Doctorow discovered, the reality is a little more complicated: if Makerbot has committed a sin, it is not the sin of which it stands accused.

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Turn literary works into patent applications with patent-generator


Patent-generator is a Github-hosted python script that turns literary texts into patent applications, with descriptions of the accompanying diagrams (here's Kapital, AKA "A method and device for comprehending, theoretically, the historical movement"; and here's Heidegger's The Question Concerning Technology, AKA "A device and system for belonging to bringing-forth").

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Amazon patents taking pictures of stuff on a white background


The annals of stupid, sloppy patents have a new world-beating entry: Amazon has received a patent on taking pictures of stuff on a white background. The patent's particulars specify a well-known lighting arrangement that minimizes shadows and post-production cleanup. As DIY Photography points out, there's a huge corpus of prior art on this that Amazon didn't disclose in its filing, and the USPTo appeared to have done no due diligence before giving the company a 20-year monopoly on a common studio technique.

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Everything is a Remix vs Patent Trolls

Adi from EFF writes, "Engine Advocacy worked with artist Kirby Ferguson (of Everything is a Remix fame) to create this great primer on patent trolls. It beautifully and succinctly lays out the patent problem, which is one of the hottest topics on the Hill right now. EFF, Public Knowledge, and Engine are pushing for people to call their senators to demand strong patent reform, and we have a handy tool at fixpatents.org for all you to do so!"

EFF, Public Knowledge and Engine tell the USPTO how to improve patent quality

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge and Engine have submitted comments [PDF] to the US Patent and Trademark Office explaining how examiners could improve the quality of patents that the USPTO issues by expanding their search for "prior art" (that is, evidence that the thing under discussion has already been invented) by building searchable databases, and by seeing through the common, misleading practices of using synonyms for common words to make obvious things sound new.

As EFF points out in its post on the filing, the real answer for this is action from Congress to reform patents and end patent-trolling, but these are all useful steps for the USPTO to take in the meantime.

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Podcasting patent trolls seek to intimidate EFF supporters, EFF fights back


Personal Audio is a patent troll that claims to own the process of sending audio around because they bought a patent from a guy who read Scientific American articles onto cassette tapes and sent them through the mail (seriously!). The Electronic Frontier Foundation is seeking to invalidate this patent -- which Personal Audio is using to shake down all kinds of indie podcasters for protection money -- using a new, cheaper, streamlined process.

Personal Audio is fighting dirty. They've filed an expensive lawsuit outside of the patent proceeding, and subpoenaed the names and personal details of everyone who donated to the campaign against their patent, purely to raise the price of adjudicating their patent and to intimidate podcasters who gave to the litigation fund rather than paying off Personal Audio.

EFF is fighting back. At stake is the process that is supposed to fix one tiny corner of the patent quagmire -- if Personal Audio's tactic succeeds, it will kill Congress's patent-fix dead.

The Juelsgaard Intellectual Property and Innovation Clinic at Stanford Law School has offered free counsel to anyone who's worried about the subpoena.

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Key 3D printing patent expired yesterday


Yesterday marked the expiry of US Patent 5597589, "Apparatus for producing parts by selective sintering." This is one of the core patents in the 3D printing world -- the patent that allows 3D printer companies to charge more for fine nylon powder than Michelin-starred restaurants charge for filet mignon. The high cost of consumables in 3D printing has been a major barrier to innovation in the field -- selective laser sintering produces a fine finish that the patent-free fused deposition modeling technique used in Reprap-style printers can't match -- and now the brakes are coming off.

However, there are still lots of patents (including some genuinely terrible ones) in the 3D printing world, so the expiry of 5597589 doesn't necessarily mean that we'll see a flood of cheap printers and cheaper feedstock -- given the murkiness of the overlapping patent claims and the expense of litigating each one of them, radical new entrants into the field are still facing a lot of risk that has nothing to do with making great products at a fair price.

In a good piece on 3D Print, Eddie Krassenstein speculates about the scary supplementary laser-sintering patents lurking in the wings, pointing out that Stratasys (the major competitor of 3D Systems, who owned 5597589) didn't design their entry-lever printers to use SLS, even though they knew that the patent would be expiring in early 2014. Krassenstein suggests that this means that Stratasys knows about some other gnarly and deadly patent that would torpedo them if they went SLS.

But I'm a lot less convinced than Krassenstein is about the potential of a competitor taking the risky step of making a SLS printer that sticks to the claims in 5597589. Virtually every technical idea is covered by a stupid, overbroad patent, and yet people start businesses every day that open them to legal liability from a troll or an entrenched incumbent. If the potential for a patent suit was, in itself, a sufficient deterrent to raising capital and starting a business, we wouldn't see any startups. And a company that sticks to the claims in 5597589 has a powerful weapon in any patent suit: the USPTO granted 5597589 20 years ago, and so if they granted overlapping patents since, they were manifestly in error, a matter that is relatively (in patent terms, anyway) easy to prove.

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Dirty secrets of America's most notorious patent troll


MPHJ are the notorious patent trolls who claim that any business that scans documents and then emails them owes them $1,000 per employee. Their corporate structure is shrouded in mystery, hidden behind a nigh-impenetrable screen of shell companies, but thanks to a lawsuit the company has launched against the Federal Trade Commission, we're getting access to some details about their extortion racket. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Julie Samuels rounds up the most interesting tidbits including the fact that MPHJ believes that every business in America with more 100 employees owes them $1,000 per employee, no matter what industry the company is in.

MPHJ brought suit against the FTC because it claims that it has a First Amendment right to send threatening letters to small businesses.

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Patent mess goes to the Supreme Court

Two more high-profile patent cases are headed to the US Supreme Court, which has already agreed to hear a patent case this year. The patent system is in chaos, with ever-more-trivial patents being granted, and ever-broader theories of patent infringement being created by the Federal Circuit, the court that oversees the patent system.

A Supreme Court ruling that restored some sanity to patents would be very welcome indeed -- but if they went the other way, it would be dreadful. The only solution at that point would be for Congress -- whose campaigns depend on revenue from patent abusers -- to pass a new law (don't hold your breath).

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Scan-to-email patent trolls sue Coca-Cola and other large companies


MPHJ is America's most notorious patent troll. The company -- whose owners are shrouded in mystery through a network of shell companies -- claims a patent on scanning documents and then emailing them, and they threaten business-owners with massive lawsuits unless they pay $1,000 per-employee "license fees."

Mostly, the troll has gone after small-fry, companies too small to defend themselves, and has stopped short of actually going to court. But now they've gone big-league, announcing suits against Coca-Cola, Dillards, Unum Group and Huhtakami.

It's not clear whether they've built their litigation warchest through the small-fry, but it seems unlikely. The lawsuit discloses that the troll extracted payments from Canon and Sharp in exchange for not suing their customers, and I suspect this is where the money for the suits came from.

The legal filings in the cases are very long, and detail the companies' internal networks as evidence of patent violation. The troll relies on the fact that all three companies use Xerox and Lexmark products and since these two companies haven't paid ransom for their customers, it can be assumed that anyone using their devices violates the patents.

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Call your Congresscritter today, help kill patent trolling

It's make or break time for the Innovation Act (H.R. 3309), with less than two days until a crucial vote. The Act injects some much-needed reform into the patent system (though it doesn't go far enough), and it's been moving strongly through Congress, coming out of committee with a 33-5 vote. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is asking its supporters to call their reps to tell them to support the bill.

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