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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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.
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.
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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?
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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!
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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.
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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.
* Fabrication of Non-Homogeneous Articles Via Additive Manufacturing Using Three-Dimensional Voxel-Based Models
* Build Materials and Applications Thereof
* Method for Generating and Building Support Structures With Deposition-Based Digital Manufacturing Systems
* Process for Producing Three-Dimensionally Shaped Object and Device for Producing Same (Ask Patents request for prior art)
* Additive Manufacturing System and Method for Printing Customized Chocolate Confections (Ask Patents request for prior art)
* Ribbon Filament and Assembly for Use in Extrusion-based Digital Manufacturing Systems (Ask Patents request for prior art)
Our work doesn’t stop here.
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:
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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.
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.
This is the first third of my recent Guardian column, What I wish Tim Berners-Lee understood about DRM, but there's two other important points to make, apropos the W3C: Read the rest
The video profiles software developer Austin Meyer, who is the target of a patent troll lawsuit.
Wired's got a roundup of evil patents
that are going to make 3D printing expensive and barren of innovation for years to come. There's even a business-model patent in there. Ick. (On the plus side, there are a couple that are close to expiring) Read the rest
Joe Mullin's Ars Technica piece, "Patent trolls want $1,000—for using scanners," is an excellent, blood-boiling piece detailing the ease with which the US patent system can be used for pure extortion. A company -- its identity is shrouded in mystery and hidden behind several layers of obfuscation -- has a series of junk-patents allegedly covering any time anyone scans a document over a network and attaches the scan to an email. That may not, in fact, be what the patents say, but they're written in such absolutely tortured fashion that it's impossible to say.
The company -- and its many alphnumerical subsidiaries -- send invoices to small and medium business, threatening to sue them if they don't pay a per-employee license fee. Any company that fights risks having to pay triple damages for "willful infringement," though the companies that do fight win -- the patents are garbage, there's tons of invalidating prior art. But they still have to pay thousands in legal fees for the privilege of fending off these creeps.
When patent-troll apologists tell you that the patent system is necessary to protect "invention," ask them why the acceptable cost for this protection is allowing any unscrupulous scumbag to use the court system to extract windfalls from productive companies on the basis of having claimed to invented commonplace, existing, obvious technologies.
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Vicinanza was able to get in touch with several other Project Paperless targets, suggesting that Project Paperless lawyers were indeed targeting companies based on the list.
Reactions to the letters varied.
Broadcast.com founder Mark Cuban and Minecraft creator Markus Persson have donated $500,000 to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to endow the "Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents," which will be occupied by an attorney tasked with hunting down and destroying crappy patents that have been recklessly granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office to unscrupulous "inventors" who claim to have invented things that were obvious and/or already extant; and to pay for activists to fight for substantive patent reform:
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Cuban's $250,000 donation also funds the hire of a new attorney experienced in patent reform and high profile patent litigation: Daniel Nazer, who will join EFF in January as a Staff Attorney. The rest of EFF's seasoned intellectual property team includes Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry, Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl, and Staff Attorney Mitch Stoltz. The team is also assisted by EFF fellows Michael Barclay and Jason Schultz.
Persson's separate donation of $250,000 cements EFF's ability to tackle the systemic problems with software patents. With a blend of lawyers, technologists, and activists, EFF will push for reform in the courts, through activism campaigns, and by educating the public and politicians about what is wrong with software patents and what needs to change.
"Temporary fixes aren't good enough – we need deep and meaningful reform to protect software development and keep it as free and democratic as possible," said Persson, creator of the popular videogame Minecraft. "New games and other technological tools come from improving on old things and making them better – an iterative process that the current patent environment could shut down entirely.