Saturday, April 21, 2012

An Early Example of a Patent Troll

Written by Gary L. Reback almost ten years ago, this article -- Patently Absurd -- describes the drivers behind the horrible degeneration of the patent system in the US. The entire article is worth reading, but this description of an early patent troll is just fantastic:

My own introduction to the realities of the patent system came in the 1980s, when my client, Sun Microsystems--then a small company--was accused by IBM of patent infringement. Threatening a massive lawsuit, IBM demanded a meeting to present its claims. Fourteen IBM lawyers and their assistants, all clad in the requisite dark blue suits, crowded into the largest conference room Sun had.

The chief blue suit orchestrated the presentation of the seven patents IBM claimed were infringed, the most prominent of which was IBM's notorious "fat lines" patent: To turn a thin line on a computer screen into a broad line, you go up and down an equal distance from the ends of the thin line and then connect the four points. You probably learned this technique for turning a line into a rectangle in seventh-grade geometry, and, doubtless, you believe it was devised by Euclid or some such 3,000-year-old thinker. Not according to the examiners of the USPTO, who awarded IBM a patent on the process.

After IBM's presentation, our turn came. As the Big Blue crew looked on (without a flicker of emotion), my colleagues--all of whom had both engineering and law degrees--took to the whiteboard with markers, methodically illustrating, dissecting, and demolishing IBM's claims. We used phrases like: "You must be kidding," and "You ought to be ashamed." But the IBM team showed no emotion, save outright indifference. Confidently, we proclaimed our conclusion: Only one of the seven IBM patents would be deemed valid by a court, and no rational court would find that Sun's technology infringed even that one.

An awkward silence ensued. The blue suits did not even confer among themselves. They just sat there, stonelike. Finally, the chief suit responded. "OK," he said, "maybe you don't infringe these seven patents. But we have 10,000 U.S. patents. Do you really want us to go back to Armonk [IBM headquarters in New York] and find seven patents you do infringe? Or do you want to make this easy and just pay us $20 million?"

After a modest bit of negotiation, Sun cut IBM a check, and the blue suits went to the next company on their hit list.

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I had read this article long ago, and even remember unsuccessfully googling for it sometime ago; I'm glad I found it via Brad DeLong's link-post.