Archive for innovation
For those of us working with innovators seeking to build and grow much-needed businesses and bring new valuable new products to the world, it’s painful to survey the damage that has been done to the patent system in the United States over the past decade and the corresponding damage to innovation. Many factors have come together in a perfect storm of patent hostility, driven in part by rhetoric about dread “patent trolls” spread by Silicon Valley giants whose business models are threatened by the pesky patents of other parties but also by political hostility to pharma patents, perhaps because the unmanageable costs of Obamacare might be reduced somewhat if drug costs could be driven down by reducing the value of IP.
The hostility came in several waves. The American Invents Act created several new ways to gut patents, most particularly the Inter Partes Review (IPR), which would allow opponents and their allies to file endless actions against existing patents to wear down the owner and in nearly 90% of the cases so far, eventually eradicate key claims. There would also be a series of Supreme Court decisions such as the Alice decision that would make it easier for the USPTO to reject patents by declaring the invention to be “abstract.” What does “abstract” mean? The Supreme Court refused to define the term in their decision, giving examiners and courts a hammer they can swing any way they want. And then there would be a series of actions from the USPTO itself, headed by a former Google attorney highly sympathetic to the anti-patent sentiments of Silicon Valley, which went beyond the requirements of the law and of judicial decisions to exacerbate the hostility toward patents.
One of the most shocking aspects of the war on patents has been the discovery that the judges of the PTAB, the Patent Trials and Appeals Board the runs the IPR system, have no code of ethics beyond the basic requirements for any employee in the Dept. of Commerce. Thus, unlike judges in any other area, the judges of the PTAB can take cases from their former clients. General rules for Commerce employees requires a one-year buffer for cases with a potential conflict of interest, but for judges in the US judicial system, the distance must be much greater. In general, a judge simply should not take a case involving a former client regardless of how long ago the financial relationship ended. But with the scandalous lack of a judicial code of ethics for PTAB judges, questionable cases occur and with easily predicted results. Gene Quinn and Steve Brachman of IPWatchdog write forcefully on this scandal here and here.
The PTAB has been called the “death squad” of American patents, and some of its judges seem to relish that role.
Michelle Lee, the Google-tainted director of the USPTO, has at least been removed from that position, and many patent practitioners and patent seekers hope that the new leader will be free from heavy Silicon Valley influence and will take bold steps to curtail the damage being done to the US patent system. Meanwhile, many innovators are looking to other countries to develop their innovations, including places like China where IP is increasingly valued and supported. May the US catch up!
Many of the greatest inventions in America came from immigrants. See Steve Brachman’s article, “American innovation has been fueled by immigrant inventors” at IP Watchdog. Nearly all of our inventions, in fact, came from people who were either immigrants or descendants of immigrants (sometimes we seem to forget our own roots!). Immigrants with skills and a desire to succeed often become great entrepreneurs that create jobs and wealth that benefit the rest of us. Today, unfortunately, there is a lot of misunderstanding about immigrants.
Sadly, many people with great innovation potential and good education find legal immigration is nearly impossible or takes many years. They are punished with unreasonably high barriers to entry. Making the barriers greater for them will only hurt the economy and our innovation potential.
The Sovereign Man Explorer newsletter (from Sovereignman.com) of Feb. 5, 2017 has an excellent article on immigration to consider:
Everyone Loves a Good Ol’ Immigrant Witch Hunt!
Republicans aren’t the only ones who want to limit immigration. While democrats are crying foul over Trump’s policies towards immigrants, they have initiated a little foreigner witch hunt of their own.
A whole bunch of Democrats in Congress introduced a bill that would have the Secretary of State, and other federal agency directors, create a list of foreigners believed to have manipulated the election, or tampered with American political parties.
It would give the government power to freeze their assets, and bar them from entering the United States.
And this would happen based solely on the investigation and recommendation of the State Department; no due process.
What this means:
This is some pretty weak criteria for having your assets frozen and being barred from entering America. True, Trump’s plan to ban all immigrants from particular countries is extreme as well, but at least he doesn’t plan on freezing immigrants’ assets.
This essentially could rob immigrants’ of the products of their labor, while stifling their international mobility, just because their name ended up on a list.
How much evidence is required to end up on the list? We don’t know. Can they get off the list, have their travel allowance returned, and have their assets unfrozen? We don’t know. Will this be used politically against enemies of politicians? We don’t know.
This is a vague and ill defined bill which gives more power the the Feds to arbitrarily harass immigrants. And it proves this attitude is held by both major American political parties.
Innovation thrives when there is certainty and an environment where the risks of developing a new business or other innovation can bring returns. When there is the risk that government with the stroke of a pen can seize assets without due process or otherwise take everything by changing the rules of the game, there is uncertainty that chokes innovation. Scaring away talented innovators and threatening them with the loss of assets for supporting a political opponent will leave all of us worse off.
Of course, a government so out of control that it will seize immigrants’ assets for arbitrary reasons is a threat to all of its citizens as well. It is the ultimate source of innovation fatigue and worse.
Be careful about the vehicle you’ve been driving. As sturdy, tangible, useful, and inventive as it looks to you, it may turn out to be merely an abstraction, perhaps nothing more than the mere idea of “transportation” or “going places,” making it unworthy of the thousands of patents protecting its numerous technologies — if the USPTO and America’s elite judges get their way. An abstract automobile? You don’t want to be caught dead driving one. Unfortunately, since the USPTO’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) just ruled that an MRI machine is abstract and thus not patentable under the odious and vague principles of the Supreme Court’s recent Alice decision, it could be that automobiles and virtually every other machine under the sun could be next on the anti-patent chopping block. Your trusty Toyota or your faithful Ford are about to go abstract on you, courtesy of the USPTO. Look out.
In the PTAB’s elite view, as Gene Quinn explains, all the physical wizardry of the mighty MRI machine as claimed in a recent patent application for an improved MRI is just an abstract idea based on the abstraction of “classification.” It defies logic and defies the requirements of the Alice decision and the USPTO’s rules for applying Alice, but the PTAB has become a patent munching zombie that doesn’t seem bound by logic or law. They are one of the strongest forces promoting innovation fatigue. Many innovators are just giving up or going to other nations where IP rights are more meaningful.
The anti-patent forces that have taken hold of far too many influential posts in America view property rights and especially intellectual property rights as a barrier to the ideal society they envision. If only we could get rid of patents, they seem to think, drug prices would fall and Obamacare, for example, would not be such a disaster. But the bounty some intellectuals promise by weakening property rights is an illusion, for without IP rights, what is the incentive to take on the risks and costs of innovation if you cannot benefit from the occasional successes that come from your uncertain work? If your hit product can be taken and marketed by others who did not have to spend so much time and money developing it, then the inventor is often at a competitive disadvantage to everyone else. Why bother?
America’s war on patents is a war on the future of innovation. It’s a war we cannot afford to lose.
As I watch the decline of the US patent system, I have to marvel at how much loss the world is facing through the crushing barriers to innovation and job creation in the U.S. Once the beacon of innovation for the world, now would-be innovators are afraid to take the risks required to bring their new products and services to the market because they cannot get the protection that should be theirs when IP rights are strong. If a Google or Microsoft takes their invention, the great equalizer of patents will not be there for them.
In the name of advancing innovation, Congress created a monster called the American Invents Act. This was done without input from the small inventors and entrepreneurs of the world, where most innovation and job creation occurs. It was based on input from the giants like Google who despise patents (other people’s patents, that is). But thanks to the AIA, there is now a host of new ways to destroy patents and they are being used with startling effectiveness.
A key component of the war on patents is the new “patent death squad,” that Patent Trial and Appeal Board. Based on the statistics from their work, there is little hope left for patent owners. See Gene Quinn’s excellent report, “Misleading PTO statistics hide a hopelessly broken PTAB” at IPWatchdog.com. Startling, troubling, but accurate.
The war on innovation also includes action from the courts, especially the Supreme Court, which has given judges bold new weapons to invalidate patents by calling their subject matter “abstract” — a deadly word that is vague, which the Supreme Court has not even attempted to define. The possibilities for patent destruction under the Supreme Court’s new Alice test are immense, and I’ve seen some great innovations blown apart with that weapon.
The USPTO, now led by a Google attorney, has repeatedly taken a hostile attitude in how they interpret laws and create policies regarding patent examination. The results are shameful.
The politicians and their gargantuan backers are winning the war against IP and innovation in the US. It’s time for Congress to pare back the damage they have done with the AIA, and for champions of innovation to rise and demand a more equitable system.
The great challenge in innovation is not coming up with a discovery or great invention. The challenge is in making it stick, in nurturing it and growing it so that it spreads and changes the world. Numerous antibodies and barriers are ready to snuff out every great idea, even when it offers a solution that the world is clamoring for. The story of scurvy in the British Navy, as shared in Chapter 10 of Conquering Innovation Fatigue, illustrates this principle.
Scurvy cost the lives of thousands of sailors and soldiers around the world for centuries. For the British Navy, that disease was one of the greatest challenges it faced. On long voyages, 30% or more of the crew might die from scurvy. Through confusion and error among England’s educated elite regarding scurvy, misinformation about its cause and its cure would persist into the 20th century. However, there was credible medical information in the early 1600s pointing to citrus fruits as a key aid in preventing and curing the disease. [See Stephen R. Bown, SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).]
Physicians on land and at sea would later provide evidence in the mid-1700s that citrus or other fresh fruits and vegetables reduced the risk of scurvy, but this knowledge was not only ignored or resisted by those in the Navy, it was resisted by the mainstream European medical community who perpetrated a form of “strategy fatigue” by making a general understanding of the nature of disease their primary quest, being uninterested in “merely empirical” work aimed at curing a given disease. For example, the work in the 1730s of physician John Bachstrom in Holland pointing to fresh fruits and vegetables as the decisive cure for scurvy was dismissed by the medical community of his day, for he was “a mere empirick” in the eyes of his elite peers. [Kenneth J. Carpenter, The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 44-45.]
The adoption of the innovation of citrus fruit in treating scurvy took more than compelling evidence. It took someone with powerful connections to champion the innovation. This man was the prominent Scottish physician, Sir Gilbert Blane, who was only 4 years old when a detailed study on the cure for scurvy was published by James Lind in 1753 – only to be ignored for decades. (To be accurate, the information from Lind and others was obscured by terrible confusion about physiology and disease, and continued to point to the dangers of various “airs” and climatic factors as key contributors to scurvy, obscuring the fact that it was a nutritional deficiency.) [See James Lind, A Treatise of the Scurvy. in Three Parts. Containing an Inquiry Into the Nature, Causes and Cure, of that Disease. Together with a Critical and Chronological View of What Has Been Published on the Subject, Edinburgh: Printed by Sands, Murray and Cochran for A Kincaid and A Donaldson. Portions of the original reproduced online by the James Lind Library. Also see Carpenter, op. cit., pp. 51-52.]
In London, Blane became the private physician to Lord Rodney and sailed with him to the West Indies in 1779. Blane’s efforts to keep sailors healthy were increasingly successful, and through his connections to Rodney and others naval leaders, Blane was able to give lectures to senior leaders and gain support for improved practices across the entire navy. Drawing upon past work and a further demonstration of his own, he would introduce compelling evidence to naval leaders that lime juice prevented scurvy, leading the Navy to adopt lime juice in its global operations beginning in 1795. [David Nash Ford, “Biographies: Sir Gilbert Blane (1749-1834),” Royal Berkshire History (Finchampstead, UK: Nash Ford Publishing, 2005).] For nearly two centuries, the British Navy had been closed to a safe, inexpensive innovation from outsiders that solved what may have been its most vexing and costly problem. The citrus “sales pitch” fell on deaf ears until someone with the right connections to senior management could deliver it. It’s a tragic lesson of the dangers of closed innovation, of organizational rigidity, of devaluing the work of innovators, of listening to the wrong voices, of “not invented here,” and the importance of delivering the story of an innovation to the right people, through those who have the right contacts. It doesn’t need to be this way, but it often is. Thousands of needless deaths over centuries: welcome to the fruits of innovation fatigue.
Incidentally, innovation-related lessons from scurvy continued long after 1795. Though citrus juice was adopted in the British Navy, the nature of the disease and the reason for the cure were still unknowns. Without careful efforts to preserve knowledge and best practices, erosion can quickly occur. Thus when the Royal Navy undertook arctic expeditions in the 19th century, the leaders took with them a belief that good hygiene, good morale, and regular exercise prevented scurvy. Not surprisingly, scurvy was a recurring problem in these voyages. In the 20th century, when Robert Scott trekked into the Antarctic, tainted canned food was believed to be a cause of scurvy. The connection between vitamin C and scurvy was not discovered until 1932. Likewise, we have seen many organizations lose best practices, healthy processes, and even technical capabilities and knowledge when efforts weren’t taken to preserve and pass on what they had.
(The above is based on an section of Conquering Innovation Fatigue, Chapter 10.)
At an IP Conference in Shanghai yesterday, I discussed the current decline in IP rights in the United States with a US attorney who was speaking on recent changes in US patent law. Like many in the IP profession, he recognizes how painful the loss is in the U.S. and how bad this will be for the future of innovation there. As he’s learned more about China, he also recognizes, as many of us here do, how strong China’s current IP trajectory is. As IP law and practice is strengthened here, innovation will be strengthened and further incentivized. End result: China wins. In the innovation battle and future IP battles between East and West, China will take the lead. That’s my prediction.
Here’s one little example. Look at the incredible machines China can build. Here you see a brilliant example of innovation and the spirit of the new China as a Chinese company tackles the ancient problem of building bridges, an area where China has ancient strengths and now a modern lead:
On October 15, 2015, Appleton, Wisconsin’s Paper Industry International Hall of Fame will be inducting six people into the Hall of Fame. One of them is an innovator and leader from ancient China who can be considered as China’s answer to Gutenberg. Gutenberg is frequently honored in the West as one of the most important inventors ever for giving us the world’s first book printed with movable type, a remarkable achievement from around 1455. As with many inventions long thought to have had European origins, there’s a touch of Eastern flavor in this one, for Gutenberg’s Bible came 142 years after the world’s first mass-produced printed book made with movable type, the large Book of Farming (Nong Shu) from China, printed in 1313 by Wang Zhen.
Wang Zhen was a Chinese official who recognized that vast amounts of agricultural technology scattered across China needed to be preserved to help all of China reduce famine and be more productive. He took a Chinese invention, movable type, and improved upon it to make a practical way to print an entire book. He used carved wooden blocks for each character, and developed a sophisticated way of arranging them on two rotating tables to allow typesetters to quickly find needed characters to place them in his press. The Nong Shu was printed and preserved many notable inventions in China, including an early form of a blast furnace driven with a reciprocating piston attached to water works, something long that to be a later European invention.
Recognizing Wang Zhen for his important role in the advance of printing is a fitting step for the Hall of Fame, and I look forward to many more Asian inventors, scientists, and business leaders being recognized in the Hall of Fame in future years. The historical contributions of China in numerous fields have received far too little attention, and I’m delighted to see folks in Appleton taking the lead in rectifying this problem. Kudos to the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame!
I’ve noticed that many companies tend to emphasize patents in their IP strategy. Sometimes that’s almost all they consider. Sound IP strategy, however, requires applying a variety of tools. A broad approach to intellectual assets is more important than ever. Patents of various kinds, trademarks, trade secrets, copyright protection, and low-cost publications can all play a useful role.
Utility patents can protect your products, their components, the machines for making them, the methods of making them, and methods of using them, among other things. Design patents can protect aesthetic elements. Copyrights can protect commercial expression (ads, for example) of that function. Trademarks protect the brands that are based on the consumer perception of the product. Packaging relevant to your products may also be protected with utility patents, design patents, trademarks, and copyright.
The power of trademarks in protecting a company is illustrated in a recent case involving Adidas, owner of trademark for a tennis shoe with three stripes on the side. In May 2008, an Oregon jury ruled that Payless Shoes should pay $308 million to Adidas for infringing that trademark. (Payless appealed but subsequently abandoned its appeal after agreeing to an out-of-court settlement with Adidas.) Payless may have hoped to evade the three-strip trademark of German-owned Adidas by using four stripes, but Adidas successfully argued that their stripes create a distinctive mark that is a sign of origin, and that both two-stripe and four-stripe shoes may cause confusion in the minds of consumers. Three simple parallel stripes have become a distinctive part of the Adidas brand. This coverage may last as long as the brand does, unlike the limited coverage afforded by patents. Adidas, of course, relies on both utility and design patents as part of its IA strategy.
In recent years, U.S. trademark rights have been expanded to cover not just traditional logos and names, but to also cover colors, scents, characteristic sounds, and three-dimensional shapes. Examples include:
- Yamaha’s distinct water spout from its WaveRunner® personal water craft. As U.S. Trademark 74321288 states, “The mark is comprised of a three-dimensional spray of water issuing from the rear of a jet propelled watercraft and is generated during the operation of the watercraft.”
- Tiffany’s famous robin-egg blue gift box (US Trademark 75360201).
- Intel’s five musical notes (US Trademark 78721830).
Trademarks can have an unlimited life, unlike the 14-year-life design patents have from the date of filing, or the 20-year life of regular utility patents. Under U.S. law, trademarks can be used to sue both manufacturers and distributors of infringing products.
We recommend that innovators look for creative combinations of both trademarks and patents, as well as other forms of intellectual assets.
One of those other forms can be called “digital intellectual assets,” a broad category that includes domain names. They may be trademarked, but if you don’t own the domain name, you’ll have an expensive battle trying to wrest it from someone else. As soon as you consider candidates for trademarks, quickly register the related domain names. Also consider getting the related Gmail accounts, Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts, Youtube channels, Pinterest accounts, etc. Those are free or inexpensive and can be worth a great deal if your brand name becomes important.
Abraham Lincoln said that the patent system “added the fuel of interest to the fires of genius.” Today the fires of genius and the fire of innovation itself is getting doused with something less helpful than fuel. These fires are being cooled and, in some cases, extinguished with harsh attacks on the IP rights that once enabled and motivated lone inventors and small businesses to take the fruits of their genius to the market.
The owners of small businesses, the people who generate most of the innovation and business growth in the United States have good reason to be worried. Their ability to attract funding through valuable intellectual property is being compromised. Their ability to protect their products and innovations from the power of corporate giants is being whittled away. This has come from many quarters, but there is a widespread anti-patent movement driven by politics and misinformation. It’s the bitter fruit of a bitter anti-property rights movement that exaggerates the threat of a few bad actors to justify widespread weakening of property rights in ways that will hurt the economy and our society for years to come.
We have seen a recent series of Supreme Court cases that have made it much harder to obtain patents and enforce them. We have seen massive changes in US patent law that make it easier to invalidate patents after they are granted and make it harder and more costly to stop infringers if your patent survives. Now the bogeyman of “patent trolls” is held up as a threat to America that requires more sweeping “patent reform” to make it even harder to enforce a patent, and it looks like both parties are united in a quest to do “something big” to shake up the IP rights that helped drive the American economy for so many decades. Corporate giants benefit from this reform as it clears away the annoyance of other people’s IP rights standing in the way of their marketing muscle. But the economy as a whole and the rights of many are hurt in this process this amplifies innovation fatigue .
Several recent articles highlight just how serious the problem has become. Louis Carbonneau in “Toxic Asset: The Gradual Demise of the American Patent” (IPWatchdog.com, December 10, 2014), surveys the radical changes in the past two or three years:
On the judicial front, in 2014 we saw no fewer than 5 Supreme Court decisions going against patent holders on the various subjects of obviousness (a key test for patent validity), what constitutes “abstract ideas” (which now undergo a more stringent test for patentability), business method patentability, indefiniteness (how you construe claims), reasonable royalty (how you calculate damages), willful infringement (how you punish the “bad actors”) and fee shifting (making losers pay for winners legal fees). All of these decisions have collectively made it harder for patent owners to: i) maintain the validity of duly issued patents (previously presumed by law), ii) pursue infringement claims, ii) prove damages (let alone treble damages), iv) have open discussions with potential infringers prior to litigating, and have left the unsuccessful patent owner at risks of paying millions in legal fees to the other side if the judges so decides.
Parallel to judicial reform at the federal courts, recent US patent reform with the American Invent Act (AIA) introduced a new post grant review mechanism called Inter Partes Review (IPR) which allows a party to challenge the validity of any issued patent before the Patent Trial & Appeals Board (PTAB). Strangely, despite the PTAB being an emanation of the same USPTO that delivered all these patents in the first place, there is no longer a presumption of validity before the PTAB for the patents being challenged while other rules make it easier to invalidate patents based on prior art.
Finally, on the political front, in 2013 the US House of Reps. passed the Goodlatte bill, which would erode rights conveyed to all patent holders despite being primarily directed at NPEs. It is now expected that the new Republican led Senate will revive the bill -currently on hold- in early 2015 and, with a rare showing of bipartisanship from the White House, it is expected to be signed into law. At the same time, 27 US States have passed or are in the process of passing laws that make it harder for people to assert the patents they own.
Carbonneau goes on to explain that in recent Federal Circuit cases, patent owners are being crushed, and in Inter Partes Review (IPR) cases before the USPTO, nearly 80% of the owners of challenged patents are being told by the USPTO that their patents are not valid over the prior art that the USPTO itself supposedly considered before granting the patent in the first place. Carbonneau puts it rather wryly:
The most interesting statistics come from the PTAB [the USPTO’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board, which processes IPR cases] because it only focuses on validity issues based on prior art; the very same prior art patent examiners are supposed to have found and analyze prior to issuing a patent. Since patents going through IPRs are usually the same ones that being litigated, you would assume that owners did a lot of due diligence before investing in a costly patent lawsuit. Well, the PTAB is declaring 77.5% of reviewed patents invalid! And this is not limited to “abstract” software; patents related to biotech and pharmaceuticals, medical and mechanical devices, are being invalidated at an even higher rate! Remember, this is an offspring of the very same agency that inventors paid thousands of dollars in the first place to review applications and issue their patents. Now, after having to pay a quarter to a half million dollars in legal fees (average cost of an IPR procedure for a patent holder), the same agency is telling patentees nearly 80% of the time: “Very sorry we made a mistake; we would not have allowed your application had we looked more carefully for existing prior art. And no, there is no refund available.”
Personally, I cannot think of any industry that could survive more than a month with a nearly 80% defective rate, let alone by forcing you to spend a fortune for the “privilege” to confirm that indeed your title was invalid in the first place! Only a government can come up with such a broken system and get away with it.
The impact of these anti-patent efforts has been a surprisingly sudden break from the trend of increasing IP litigation, with litigation in 2014 down about 13% from the previous year according to a new 2015 PwC report on patent litigation. The problem of explosively increasing patent litigation, a common excuse to justify the slashing of patent rights, is not supported by the data.
Richard Lloyd, writing for the IAM Blog, draws this observation from the PwC report:
Of these three classes [of patent litigants considered], NPE [non-practicing entity] companies have been successful 31% of the time in patent cases brought since 1995; this compares with a success rate for universities and non-profits of 48% and a lowly 18% for individual inventors. Individual patent owners also do far worse with damages pay-outs, getting a median award of $3 million compared with $11.5 million for company NPEs and $16.2 million for universities/non-profits.
There could be many reasons for individual inventors doing relatively badly. Although the PWC study doesn’t provide any, it’s easy to speculate that small inventors may have lower average quality patents to begin with, while they probably don’t have the same kind of litigation savvy as other NPEs and are much less likely to have access to the same kind of litigation expertise that larger, better funded patent owners can turn to.
But what PWC’s numbers also strongly suggest is that the US patent litigation system is strongly stacked against small, patent owning entities. Bearing this in mind, it is worrying that the main packages of reform proposed in the House of Representatives (the Innovation Act) and the Senate (the PATENT Act) are only going to penalise them further.
Lloyd notes that potential irony now that many lone inventors, recognizing that they have little chance of winning and have almost no chance of affording the punitive legal bills they may face if they sue and lose, may be more likely to turn to NPEs (“patent trolls”) for help as the most practical way to realize any benefit from their work.
There is a need to rebuild an innovation climate in the United States, starting with educating our leaders about the need for IP rights and the value of patents. If we don’t teach this lesson from within, it will eventually be taught rather loudly from without, for Europe and China are both moving to strengthen IP rights and strengthen IP enforcement. Europe’s Unitary Patent system could be a boon to IP there, though much remains to be seen, but the changes in China are strong and dramatic. That nation has gone from no patents and no IP system in the early 1980s to the world’s biggest source of IP generation and IP litigation, with many changes steadily strengthening the nation’s IP system. There is a long ways to go for China still and there have been some setbacks, but at current rates we can see China becoming a leading source of global innovation while the US loses its lead.
Will the flames of innovation be largely quenched in that nation? Much depends on what we do with IP rights now, the rights that will shape our culture and economy for decades to come. May the fires of genius be encouraged with something other than the cold water Congress and Courts have been sloshing.
A small start-up company fighting one of the great giants of all time: it’s a classic story of David vs. Goliath, or in this case, David vs. Googleliath (a.k.a. VSL vs. Google).
Many small companies have claimed that Google misappropriated trade secrets or other IP, but rarely has Google graciously (and accidentally) cooperated in providing smoking-gun evidence the way they apparently did for Vedanti Systems, Ltd. (VSL). In this case, they allegedly left sticky notes on VSL’s trade secret materials showing their questionable intentions to take Vedanti’s technology. If VSL prevails against this giant, it may be more a case of Googleliath falling on its own sword than David being great with a sling.
VSL and their partners are now suing Googleliath for infringement of patents and theft of trade secrets in two courts. The suits are against Google (here also known as “Googleliath”) and their subsidiairies, YouTube and On2 Technologies. London-based Vedanti Systems Limited and their U.S.-based parent, VSL Communications, Inc., have turned to Max Sound for help in enforcing IP rights. The patent suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, while the trade secret suit was filed in Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara.
The complaints claim that Google executives met with Vedanti Systems in 2010 to discuss the possibility of acquiring Vedanti’s patented digital video streaming techniques and other trade secrets. Vedanti’s compression technology for streaming audio and video files is far superior to what Google had, Google’s own standards for streaming video t the time led to “jittery, low-quality video and sound for large-sized video files,” according to the patent complaint.
As part of the talks with VSL, Google had access to trade secrets such as VSL’s proprietary codec for encoding and decoding a digital data stream. That codex has proprietary techniques for “key frame positioning, slicing and analyzing pixel selection of video content to significantly reduce the volume of digital video files, while minimizing any resulting loss of video quality.”
Shortly after the negotiations began, Google allegedly began implementing VSL technology into its WebM/VP8 video codec, applying what they had learned from VSL but not letting VSL know. The WebM/VP8 video codec is extremely important for Google. It is used in many of their services and websites including YouTube.com, Google TV, the Android operating system, and Chrome web browser. They had inferior technology, but by allegedly stealing Vedanti’s, they were able to quickly advance their business at virtually no cost.
There’s just two pesky little problems for Google:
1. Vedanti has patents for its technology and is not afraid to sue. Now you might see why Google seems to really hate software patents (rather, other people’s software patents). They have been a leading force in some of the patent reform measures and related steps that have made protecting IP rights harder than ever for little guys like Vedanti. This giant, with its easy access to the White House and many other influencers, has also been an important voice against software patents, and may have helped influence popular opinion and the courts into recent devastating attacks on software patents. But Vedanti’s patents are still alive for now, so Google has cause for concern.
2. Google seems to have assisted VSL’s case by returning VSL’s trade secret materials with tell-tale sticky notes all over them showing their intent. Huh? This is really an amazing part of this story.
When the VSL Google talks ended, VSL demanded the return of its files. The returned documents were covered with incriminating Post-it notes that had apparently been left behind by Google employees. Attorney Adam Levitt claims that the notes said, among other things, that Google might possibly be infringing VSL’s then-pending patent and that Google should “keep an eye” on VSL’s technology and sweep it into a Google patent. In addition, notes warned Google engineers not to be caught “digging deep” and to “close eyes to existing IP.”
The complaint alleges that Google began to amend its preexisting patent applications and file new applications using VSL’s technology. Then in early 2012, VSL noticed that there were significant improvements to the video quality of Google’s Android operating system as well as other Google software. In June, the staff at VSL analyzed Google’s publicly available code only to discover that the code contained VSL trade secrets. Levitt asserts that the “Defendants’ theft of VSL’s trade secrets pervades virtually every website and product offered by defendants.”
“The use of new technology by established companies should be based on original creation and innovation,” said Adam Levitt, head of Grant & Eisenhofer’s Consumer Protection practice, who is representing the plaintiffs. “Vedanti Systems created groundbreaking digital video technology — technology that has forever changed the way that video content is streamed and displayed over the Internet.”
The lawsuits allege that Google willfully infringed Vedanti Systems’ patent and did so deliberately and knowingly, while recognizing the serious shortcomings of their own video streaming capabilities prior to the infusion of stolen IP.
Whether the suit will succeed or not remains to be seen, but I find Google’s lapse in leaving sticky notes on the borrowed materials to be rather hilarious, if it is true. One thing is for sure: If Vedanti’s allegations are factual, their chances of seeing some degree of justice are vastly greater by virtue of having a patent than if they did not. Software patents are essential for protecting innovations in the hugely important arena of information technology. This is the Knowledge Economy, folks, not the Iron Age. Economic growth and progress is more likely to come from advanced software and IT innovations than from hammering out better cogs and gears, and we need an IP system that understands this. Most judges and politicians ranting against software patents or patents in general do not understand this. Recent ruling that make many software innovations not even eligible for patents show that we have judges and influencers very ignorant of the physical nature of information and computer systems. Innovations like those of Vedenati are not tantamount to mere abstraction and mental exercises. They should have just as much right to be considered for a patent (provided they are novel, nonobvious, and useful) as any tool wielded by or widget hammered out by an innovative blacksmith.
Software patents matter, and they are vitally important for the best innovators of our day if they are to stand against the anti-patent giants that want anything but a level playing field. VSL vs. Google, or David vs. Googleliath, is a compelling reminder of that.
VSL’s patents in Europe are already causing pain for Google. Here is an excerpt from “Court Seizes Google’s Infringing Android Devices in Germany at IFA,” Stockhouse.com, Sept. 11, 2014:
SANTA MONICA, CA–(Marketwired – September 11, 2014) – VSL Communications, creators of Optimized Data Transmission technology and Max Sound Corporation (OTCQB: MAXD) (MAXD) creators of MAX-D HD Audio solutions, have been granted multiple preliminary injunctions from the District Court Berlin against OEM’s (Original Equipment Manufacturers) to stop the sale of certain Google Android devices in the Federal Republic of Germany at the Premier show IFA in Berlin (Internationale Funkausstellung, http://www.ifa-berlin.de/en), the world’s leading fair for Consumer Electronics and Home Appliances).
Max Sound, under agreement with VSL Communications, is enforcing intellectual property rights on VSL’s behalf and has obtained preliminary injunctions against Shenzhen KTC Technology Co. Ltd and Pact Informatique S.A., France. German Customs authorities further inspected several other exhibitors of smartphones and tablet PC’s with Android operating system. Shenzhen KTC Technology Co. Ltd. is one of the largest Chinese electronics groups operating worldwide, and Pact Informatique is a French electronics company operating in many European countries under the brand Storex. Max Sound’s actions were based on infringement of VSL’s European Patent EP 2 026 277 concerning an Optimized Data Transmission System Method. The Infringement was found on the basis that Google’s Android OS implements the H.264-Standard for video encoding, which is protected by VSL’s patent. A bailiff seized all smartphones and tablets of KTC and Pact at the trade fair IFA in Berlin on September 10, 2014. The injunctions have no automatic time limit, and opponents can file an opposition.
So what will Google do? For starters, I’m predicting we’ll see VSL and their allies soon being called some kind of “troll.” I also think we can rely on Google’s friends at the USPTO and beyond to find all sorts of reasons why Vedanti’s patents aren’t even drawn to patent eligible subject matter, regardless of how novel they may be. But the trade secret case is where I think tiny Vedanti might have a fighting chance, thanks to Googleliath’s cooperation with the sticky notes. Who said IP law wasn’t entertaining? Weird Al could have a lot of fun with this story. Suggestions for what tune to use in his spoof?
Note: The US cases referred to are captioned as: Vedanti Systems Ltd. and Max Sound Corp. v. Google, Inc., YouTube, LLC, and On2 Technologies, Inc., No. 1:14-cv-01029 (D. Del., filed Aug. 9, 2014) and Max Sound Corp., VSL Communications Ltd., et al. v. Google, Inc., et al., No. 114-cv-269231 (Cal. Sup Ct.).
- Max Sound Corp. Files Two Lawsuits Against Google, Accusing Search Giant of Misappropriating Proprietary Digital Video Streaming Technology (PRNewswire.com)
- Story at Yahoo! News
- Android Devices Seized in Europe (Stockhouse.com)
- Originally posted at JeffLindsay.com