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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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'Destroy all Patent Trolls,' by Jonathan 'Song a Day' Mann (music video)

Man oh man, Mr. Mann. I didn't know if it was possible to adore the unfathomably prolific Jonathan "Song a Day" Mann any more, but yes, yes it is. Song a Day #1728, "Destroy all Patent Trolls." Lyrics:

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Judge requires patent troll to explain its "Mr Sham" business

Patent trolls are mushrooming all over the world, thriving on the billions that they're able to extract from productive companies with their absurd patents and transparent extortion attempts. One of the only defenses society has against these parasites is the rare, clueful judge. Enter Judge William Alsup, who made history in the Oracle v Google shitshow, when his experience actually writing code let him see through Oracle's bizarre arguments and cut to the heart of the argument.

Now Alsup is back in the saddle, hearing a case involving "Network Protection Sciences," a troll who tried to engineer a hearing in the notorious East Texas courtroom that is the most favorable venue for trolling litigation, by renting out a closet in the area as its "offices" and naming the building's real-estate broker as the company's "director of business development." Alsup saw right through this, and required the trolls to explain, in fine detail, the workings of their "Mr. Sham" operation.

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Ruling: Copying scientific articles for patent lawyers' reference is fair use.


The publisher John Wiley has lost a court battle over the copying practices of a patent law-firm that had assembled a private library of copies of scientific articles for the purpose of researching patent applications. Initially, Wiley had sued over the use of copies of scientific articles in patent applications, but the US Patent and Trademark Office pre-empted that suit by issuing a directive declaring such copies to be fair use. Wiley switched its legal theory, suing over the assembly of the library, and US Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Keyes ruled (PDF) that this was also fair use, since the USPTO requires lawyers to consult the literature before filing. It's likely that Wiley will appeal to the district court.

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3D printable objects modeled on expired 19th century patents


Martin Galese's Thingiverse account is full of amazing 3D objects modeled on 19th-century patent drawings. Galese, a patent attorney, has launched his project -- and an accompanying Tumblr of lovely patent drawings -- to help people understand the value he perceives in the patent system.

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Trolling Effects: a database of patent trolls


Trolling Effects is a new clearinghouse for information about patent trolls, inspired by the excellent Chilling Effects, which meticulously tracks bogus takedown and censorship efforts. Trolling Effects will track legal threats and extortionate demands from patent trolls, establishing the first really good look at the scope of the problem. It was created as a joint effort between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several other organizations; and they want your patent-threat letters to help them build the record; they will keep the important details private, and your contribution will help keep the momentum up to end patent-trolling.

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Patent life: how the Supreme Court fell short

You can't patent the building blocks of life, but you can patent a type of synthetic DNA that contains all the same information. Maggie Koerth-Baker explains how the Justices misunderstood the science and the effect that their verdict could have on future research. Read the rest

Killing stupid software patents is really easy, and you can help


The US Patent and Trademark Office is required by law to let the public submit "prior art" for pending patents -- essentially, evidence that the thing the patent-filer is claiming to have invented already exists. People who spot patents in need of killing post them to a Stack Exchange forum called Ask Patents, in the hopes that other forum members will come up with invalidating art.

Joel Spolsky writes about how he found -- in 15 minutes, mind you -- the prior art necessary to invalidate a dumb-ass Microsoft patent on scaling images. He documents the process by which he did it, and shows how easily you could do it, too. As Spolsky points out, software patents are all basically shit, and trivial to prove as such. It just takes a dedicated army of freedom fighters to find and submit the prior art that helps the overworked patent examiners at the USPTO to reject the garbage they get by the truckload.

Software patent applications are of uniformly poor quality. They are remarkably easy to find prior art for. Ask Patents can be used to block them with very little work. And this kind of individual destruction of one software patent application at a time might start to make a dent in the mountain of bad patents getting granted.

My dream is that when big companies hear about how friggin’ easy it is to block a patent application, they’ll use Ask Patents to start messing with their competitors. How cool would it be if Apple, Samsung, Oracle and Google got into a Mexican Standoff on Ask Patents? If each of those companies had three or four engineers dedicating a few hours every day to picking off their competitors’ applications, the number of granted patents to those companies would grind to a halt. Wouldn’t that be something!

Victory Lap for Ask Patents - Joel on Software (via O'Reilly Radar)

Get ready for the big bang as 3D printing patents expire


The key patents covering a 3D printing technique called "laser sintering" are set to expire in the next year or two -- there are a bunch of them, so they'll trickle out -- and this will radically reduce the price of printing and printers. Laser sintering involves melting a fine powder (usually plastic) in order to fuse it with the powder below and around it, and it's a technique that produces a very smooth, even finish. The big 3D printer manufacturers, who control the laser sintering patents, have used patent law to lock up the market for devices, and to prevent device-owners from sourcing their powder from third parties. As a result, simple, cheap plastic powder can cost more than filet mignon by weight, which means that the cost of 3D printed objects is very high -- especially when you factor in the extremely high cost (and high profit margins!) on the printers themselves.

As these patents expire, it will mean that mass-manufactured printers from China and elsewhere will be able to integrate laser-sintering, setting aside the extruded plastic wire technique that is presently standard. With wire-extrusion, a wire filament is melted inside a print-head, and then forced out of a fine nozzle, like icing coming out of an icing bag. This produces a rougher finish and is prone to delamination during the print-process.

Patent expiry will also open new horizons to the world of hacker/maker printers, like the RepRap and its derivatives. These open-source hardware printers will likewise be able to integrate laser sintering, and to take advantage of a coming explosion in plastic powder suppliers.

All told, it's an exciting moment to be in. 3D printing is a minefield of stupid patents -- there's a patent on putting see-through plastic windows on the sides of a 3D printer! -- but thankfully, they're mostly old and starting to expire. Give it a couple of years and there will be a very robust, open marketplace of cheap, innovative, and open printers flooding the market.

Within just a few years of the patents on FDM expiring, the price of the cheapest FDM printers fell from many thousands of dollars to as little as $300. This led to a massive democratization of hobbyist-level 3D printers and injected a huge amount of excitement into the nascent movement of “Makers,” who manufacture at home on the scale of one object at a time.

A similar sequence involving the lifting of intellectual property barriers, a rise in competition, and a huge drop in price is likely to play out again in laser deposition 3D printers, says Shapeways’ Scott. “This is what happened with FDM,” he says. “As soon as the patents expired, everything exploded and went open-source, and now there are hundreds of FDM machines on the market. An FDM machine was $14,000 five years ago and now it’s $300.”

3D printing will explode in 2014, thanks to the expiration of key patents [Christopher Mims/Quartz]

(Image: tvrrug reprap "3d printer", a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from osde-info's photostream)

Public transit patent trolls get thrown under the bus

In a field of horrible, amoral scumbags, patent troll ArrivalStar is an exceptionally awful enterprise. They have a huge portfolio of ridiculous patents for obvious ways of tracking where public transit vehicles are and using that to coordinate schedule information, and they use that portfolio to extort massive sums from public transit systems in cities across America. After a years-long reign of terror -- which included the Electronic Frontier Foundation getting one of their patents gutted on rexamination -- the The American Public Transportation Association and the Public Patent Foundation have filed suit to get the whole portfolio knocked out. Good luck, APTA and PubPat: our cash-strapped cities need you.

Supreme Court: You can't patent (naturally occurring) genes

In an unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled today that companies can't patent genes, or parts of genes — at least, so long as that genetic material is identical to what occurs in nature. The lawsuit dealt specifically with Myriad Genetics, the company that isolated and has claimed a patent on BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 — genes associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers. From a practical perspective, Myriad's hold on the genes has meant that tests for genetic cancer risk are strikingly expensive — Xeni paid more than $3000 for hers. It's also meant that, if you get a positive result, there's been nowhere you could go for a second opinion.

That's a big deal. Mutations in the BRCA 1 and 2 genes mean an increased risk of cancer, but there's more than one kind of mutation that can happen. In fact, BRCA 1, alone, has hundreds of known mutations. Some increase your risk of cancer. But, even if you narrow it down to just those, they don't all increase the risk by the same amount. The health choices you make could be very different depending on whether you have an 80% risk of developing breast cancer by age 90 (the worst-case scenario for BRCA 1 mutations), or something much lower. That's the kind of situation where you might really like to have more than one lab run more than one kind of test.

This ruling opens the door for that, and the competition should (theoretically) also lower the cost.

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This American Life on the awful, crooked mess of the patent system

This week, This American Life revisits the question of patents (a subject they did a very good job with in 2011), a move sparked by the attempt to shake down podcasters for patent royalties for a ridiculously overbroad patent from a company that went bust recording magazine articles to cassette and putting them in the mail. The new episode revisits the main stories raised in the earlier broadcast (don't worry, it stands alone), and does a remarkable job of making the case for substantive patent reform -- and pierces the veil on Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myrvold's notorious patent-troll-that-insists-it-isn't-a-troll.

NPR reporter Laura Sydell and This American Life producer/Planet Money co-host Alex Blumberg tell the story of Intellectual Ventures, which is accused of being the largest of the patent trolls. Executives at Intellectual Ventures insist they are not trolls, but rather, promoters of innovation. They buy patents from struggling inventors, which encourages those inventors to go out and invent more stuff. Intellectual Ventures offers an example of such an inventor, a man named Chris Crawford. But when Laura and Alex try and talk to Chris Crawford, it leads them on a long search, culminating in a small town in Texas, where they find a hallway full of seemingly empty offices with no employees.

496: When Patents Attack...Part Two!

MP3 link