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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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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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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 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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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!
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]
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 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.
Earlier this month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation asked the US Patent and Trademark Office to turn down six broad, bogus patents on 3D printing that could pave the way for even more patent-trolling on the emerging field of 3D printing. They worked with the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Ask Patents, as well as with its own supporters to gather evidence on the prior art that invalidates these applications. It's part of a larger project to systematically challenge patents in emerging fields -- next up is mesh networks -- providing a layer of vigilance and common sense atop the reckless and indifferent patent office.
Here are copies of what we submitted to the Patent Office. The good news is that so far, the Patent Office has accepted our submissions (because of that, if you're thinking of making your own preissuance submissions, you might want to use these as a model). Now we wait to see whether our input influences the examiners.
Our work doesn’t stop here. Next we’re going to investigate a number of pending applications that impact mesh networking technology—another area with an extremely active open development community and with tremendous potential. We’ll be asking you to help us again soon. Stay tuned!
Just one more way that EFF is making the future a better one.
Joel Spolsky's editorial on patent trolls is fabulous. As he points out, the developers who pay relatively small sums to make patent trolls just go away are part of the problem, and complicit in the next round of extortion. Paying mobsters keeps them viable, and able to attack new victims:
In the face of organized crime, civilized people don’t pay up. When you pay up, you’re funding the criminals, which makes you complicit in their next attacks. I know, you’re just trying to write a little app for the iPhone with in-app purchases, and you didn’t ask for this fight to be yours, but if you pay the trolls, giving them money and comfort to go after the next round of indie developers, you’re not just being “pragmatic,” you have actually gone over to the dark side. Sorry. Life is a bit hard sometimes, and sometimes you have to step up and fight fights that you never signed up for.
Civilized people don’t pay up. They band together, and fight, and eliminate the problem. The EFF is launching a major initiative to reform the patent system. At Stack Exchange, we’re trying to help with Ask Patents, which will hopefully block a few bad patents before they get issued.
The Application Developers Alliance (of which I am currently serving as the chairman of the board) is also getting involved with a series of Developer Patent Summits, a nationwide tour of 15 cities, which will kick off a long term program to band together to fight patent trolls. Come to the summit in your city—I’ll be at the San Francisco event on April 9th—and find out what you can do to help.
Ian Hickson, the googler who is overseeing the HTML5 standard at the W3C, has written a surprisingly frank piece on the role of DRM. As he spells out in detail, the point of DRM isn't to stop illegal copying, it's to stop legal forms of innovation from taking place. He shows that companies that deploy DRM do so in order to prevent individuals, groups and companies from innovating in ways that disrupt their profitability:
The purpose of DRM is to give content providers leverage against creators of playback devices.
Content providers have leverage against content distributors, because distributors can't legally distribute copyrighted content without the permission of the content's creators. But if that was the only leverage content producers had, what would happen is that users would obtain their content from those content distributors, and then use third-party content playback systems to read it, letting them do so in whatever manner they wanted.
Here are some examples:
A. Paramount make a movie. A DVD store buys the rights to distribute this movie from Paramount, and sells DVDs. You buy the DVD, and want to play it. Paramount want you to sit through some ads, so they tell the DVD store to put some ads on the DVD labeled as "unskippable".
Without DRM, you take the DVD and stick it into a DVD player that ignores "unskippable" labels, and jump straight to the movie.
Katie sez, "The video profiles software developer Austin Meyer, who is the target of a patent troll lawsuit involving a company called Uniloc, which owns a patent for the "System and Method for Preventing Unauthorized Access to Electronic Data." Meyer's flight simulator app X-Plane, like most paid applications on the Android market, uses the authorization system. Uniloc purchased the patent in question at a bankruptcy proceeding. Despite the enormous risk, and the enormous cost just to defend against a patent suit, Meyer is resolved to do so. The broader point of the video is that something needs to be done to stop patent trolls from simply buying patents in order to intimidate innovators into paying them a settlement. Patent trolls are a huge tax on innovation and add nothing to the marketplace."