A patent troll is "a company that is specifically set up to purchase the rights to a handful of patents and then sue anyone they feel they can get money from," writes Nate Seidle, founder of the electronics company SparkFun. In a blog post, Nate writes about how his company is regularly harassed by parasitic patent trolls who send him letters demanding back royalties and other assorted damages for infringing on nonsensical patents that never should have been awarded in the first place.
This week, a patent troll called Altair Logix (headquartered at a PO box and photocopy shop in a Frisco, Texas strip mall) filed a lawsuit against SparkFun for supposedly infringing on a patent for a "Media Processing Unit" written in 1998 and granted in 2001.
The goal of patent 6289434 is to take something the embedded systems industry is built on (in this case ALUs or Arithmetic Logic Unit) and change the terminology so that it's "new." In the above image the ALU that we use all the time is coupled with something called a MAU, which I don't even have the time to decrypt the meaning of. It's bullshit. MAUs don't exist. The mixup of jargon is meant to be thick and confusing so that people who have less technical experience get worried. Why hire lots of expensive lawyers and field experts to fight when I could just settle and get back to building things? Because that only makes more little trolls.
Nate says the Altair Logix patent claims to have invented memory allocation, which would be like a car manufacturer claiming to have invented the steering wheel in 1998:
Let's move on to the lawsuit. The fun starts around page 6. Al claims:
The cost is further reduced by employing only static or dynamic ram as a means for holding the state of the system. This invention provides a way for effectively adapting the configuration of the circuit to varying input data and processing requirements. (Id. at col. 3:6-8). All of this reconfiguration can take place dynamically in run-time without any degradation of performance over fixed-function implementations. (Id. at col. 3:8-11).
The above paragraph succinctly describes
malloc(), which is perhaps one of the most fundamental advancements in modern computing. The problem is that Al didn't invent it. Memory management (the ability to take RAM and then give it back when your function is done) goes back to the dawn of computing. The use of
malloc()and carefully tending to your RAM is pervasive in embedded systems. I literally just wrote a routine this morning for the ESP32 that throttles Bluetooth traffic because my heap was running out of space. They got a patent on memory allocation? Yeah. Sure they did.
This would be a laughable shakedown if not for the fact that SparkFun is going to have to spend a lot of time and money dealing with this attempted shakedown.