Friday, June 09, 2006

Ridiculous Patent: Simple Network Protocol

Note: this was originally to be posted 2 days ago, but has been pretty much offline since Wednesday. The Lesson in all this: if you are going to start a blog, just shell out the $5/mo that it costs to get a shared hosting account with a provider of your choice and use WordPress.

Net2Phone, a Voice-Over-IP (VOIP) company that was largely unsuccessful in the marketplace has now turned to the tried-and-true strategy of suing its successful competitors with its overly-broad and extremely obvious patents. It's first victim is Skype.

As Tim Lee over at TechLiberation says,
Where to begin? This describes an absolutely pedestrian networking protocol. There's nothing remotely novel or non-obvious about two computers communicating directly with each other without using a server. I don't even understand what the "invention" is supposed to be. If you asked a random CS major how to implement a peer-to-peer network application, he'd probably come up with a description like this in about 10 minutes.

Some people seem to think that these kinds of bad software patents are anomalies--that there are good ones as well, and that we ought not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Yet I've seen news accounts of more than a dozen examples of bogus patent suits in recent months, but I have yet to see an example of a legitimate software patent. There's an awful lot of bath water here, and I'm having trouble seeing the baby.
He's right. If there is a baby in there, it long ago sunk beneath the murky surface, out of sight and out of breath. Drowned, if you will, by a sea of junk patents handed out willy-nilly by the patent office, who were pursued relentlessly by patent lawyers, patent trolls, and failed companies like Net2Phone and NTP.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Reforming Software Patents

Some interesting notes from Joe Barr via Philip Brooks, quoting Dan Ravicher (whew!):
Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation talked about what's wrong with our patent system, and how difficult it will be to ever change it. It seems that at one time, the PTO had their heads screwed on right and rejected purely software patent applications as being "not suitable material" for patents.

Two key things got the PTO off-track and us into this mess. First came the formation of a special court to hear patent cases, created by an act of Congress in 1982. The judges of the new court were not chosen from the ranks of existing judges, but from aides to the Congresscritters who created it, thus guaranteeing that it would always rule on the side of those who had lobbied for its creation and who always want more and stronger patent law.

The second was the State Street decision, which once and for all settled the question of whether pure software patents should be granted. That ruling is responsible for the boom in software patents in the past few years.

According to Ravicher, there are three major blocks to patent reform:
  • Pharmaceutical firms
  • Patent law makers (PTO, Federal Circuit Court, Congress)
  • Patent lawyers
How broken is the patent system? Well, look at it this way. Patents are weapons. If you are hit with a patent infringement suit, it will cost you between 2 and 4 million dollars to defend against it. Even if you win the suit, you're out that cost.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Owning the Idea of Tree Frog Venom

Solveig Singleton accidentally makes a very strong argument against patent rights in an article critical of actions taken by the Brazilian government to protect the knowledge of indigenous tribes and their discoveries of the many uses of tree frog poisons:
But a claim that indigenous people's or their representative governments "own" the venom of a tree frog, medicinal or otherwise, simply by virtue of having discovered it...? Well, it sounds like patenting a law of nature to me.
To which we say, "exactly." All inventions are discoveries. Does the act of discovering a new fact, idea, or combination of components cause the discoverer to own that fact, idea, or combination, and give them the right to exclude all others from practicing any similar idea? Does it give the holder of patents covering these ideas the right to a complete monopoly over entire industrial sub-sectors? According to our patent system, yes and yes.

Solveig continues:
Would these same discoverers share the risk and blame if the product were somewhere downstream, found to cause birth defects or other harm?
Would the "discoverers" of wireless email (NTP) share the risk and blame if the BlackBerry network went down, or if BlackBerrys were found to cause birth defects or other harm? The answer, of course, is no. Patent trolls are completely decoupled from any responsibility whatsoever, other than the duty they have to spend money on lawyers and extort outrageous fees from 'infringers' through abuse of our legal system. I'm not sure why Solveig brings this point up, unless she's of the same opinion that we are -- namely, that any system which assigns exclusive ownership of discoveries and ideas to only one party (such as our patent system) is inherently absurd. She continues in this vein:
Would they also desire to share in the profits from sales of coffee, tea, and chocolate, claiming to have discovered their property of tastiness? What about the properties of coca leaves and opium poppies? Would they like to share in the profits from the development of those products into painkillers? Would they also like to share in the profits from the sales of heroin and cocaine? What about crack?
Of course, maybe Ms. Singleton hasn't heard of Peruvian patents on potatoes or Indian patents on basmati rice? Or perhaps she hasn't examined the tags of just about any plant, shrub, or tree purchased at a nursery in this country lately, which warn the purchaser that breeding or germinating the plant is in strict violation of the "intellectual property rights" of the grower? Surely Ms. Singleton must be aware of the many 'rights' that companies such as Monsanto exercise, such as the right to sue farmers when Monsanto's seeds blow into their fields.

But the point is this: if patents give exclusive property rights to discoverers of new medicines and technologies, what argument could there possibly be against giving those same rights to the discoverers of tree frog venom? In both cases, some labor and inventiveness was spent to make the discovery. In both cases, something new and innovative resulted.

Perhaps the distinction is that the tribes in the Brazilian Rain Forest didn't know about the patent system when they made their discovery, and therefore didn't anticipate receiving such rights? But then, whoops! -- that would be an admission that discoveries and invention can occur without a patent system in place.

Or maybe the tribes don't deserve this economic benefit because they are primitive, and only 1st world discoverers (i.e., ones that are literate and that wear lab coats instead of loin clothes) deserve patent protection? But then, whoops! -- we shouldn't be foisting strong patent protection systems upon the third world and claiming that this will benefit those countries when the truth is that it mostly benefits us and our large, corporate patent-holding interests.

Ms. Singleton concludes:
Leave it to some of the loudest critics of patents to come up with the broadest theory of ownership yet, most resembling a feudal entitlement.
Wrong, Ms. Singleton. It was proponents of "strong" patent "rights" who have created a system in which such absurdities abound. And it doesn't appear, from the NYTimes article, that the 'loudest critics of patents' are the ones coming up with this tree frog poison protectionist scheme. On the contrary, it was Tribal Chief Fernando Katukina, who appears to be using the simple self-interest of his tribe as his motivator. He should at least be commended for his cleverness in exposing patent systems for what they really are: an artificial scheme to take wealth from one party and give it arbitrarily to another.

All this complaining by IP-maximalists when foreign nations figure out how to use our patent regime against itself only illustrates the true motives of creating these corrupt systems in the first place: to fortify exactly those feudal and aristocratic societies which Ms. Singleton claims to oppose, where status and wealth is determined only be which patent-owning 'family' you belong to.

Friday, May 26, 2006

JPEG Patent Rejected

The USPTO has rejected the broadest claims of the JPEG image format patent held by Forgent Networks.

It's nice to see the Patent Office doing the right thing, but it's too bad that more than $100 million dollars that Forgent has extorted from industry will never be returned to its rightful owners. Forgent gets to keep that money, regardless of how the PTO rules. For nearly 19 years, this patent has stood without challenge. Now, just over a year before it was to expire, the PTO declares that it is bogus.

So, how would you feel if you had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Forgent because they threatened you with a lawsuit that, regardless of outcome, would have cost you millions (average cost of defending oneself in a patent infringement suit stands today at roughly $10 million)? How would you feel knowing that our patent system stood idlely by, while Forgent played this extortion game against hundreds of companies?

And most importantly, how do you feel knowing that this is exactly the kind of behavior that our current patent system encourages, today?


Monday, May 22, 2006

Funny Dystopia

A wonderfully creative thread on the dark future of intellectual monopoly is highlighted here.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

More Money for Patent System Hijacking

The government wants to spend money educating judges to be better informed on patent issues, including hiring "specially appointed clerks with patent expertise." At face value, this sounds like a good idea, but TechDirt explains exactly why it probably is not: specialization leads to a type of bias which will likely make the system worse, one in which former patent attorneys become specially appointed clerks and judges. One in which the money spent on this type of special education starts to come mainly from the same interests who have been pushing patent "rights" towards IP-maximalism for the past several decades. The parallels to regulatory capture are too numerous to mention.

New Right to Create Domains

AJ Rahim has generously forwarded three domains to point at Right to Create, so you may now access the site from,, or Thanks AJ!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Patent Holdouts

Over at TechLiberation, Tim Lee points to a paper by Chicago law professor Doug Lichtman on Patent Holdouts, and makes this commentary:
What I found most interesting about the paper, though, is how frankly Lichtman—who I don’t think is a critic of patents generally or software patents in particular—lays out the flaws in the current patent system, especially as it relates to high-tech inventions with hundreds of components. He explains how difficult it is for honest technology creators to discover patents that might be relevant to the technology in development, how the system gives inventors the perverse incentive not to search for relevant patents to avoid treble damages, and how the holder of an undiscovered patent can lie in wait until other companies make significant investments based on their patents and then exort large sums of money from the hapless inventor.