Paul Allen’s Legacy: Patent Troll

Last month my father’s old boss and billionaire, Paul Allen, announced he was going to give away the majority of his $13.5 billion net worth to charity. Kudos for Paul! When Paul and Bill co-founded Microsoft I wonder if they had any idea how big an impact their company and the resulting wealth would have on the world? In light of this announcement I was shocked to learn that Paul Allen is using four business method patents he owns to sue Apple, AOL, Yahoo, Google, Facebook and eBay for ‘existing’. Why would Paul do this? Does he need the money?

Who is harmed by Paul’s legal actions? First, you and me (assuming you have a 401K). Second, any startup (like ours) who uses web technologies. We need more innovation in the United States, not less. Software patents, like Paul’s, are bad for business, America and the planet. They simply don’t make any sense for software. When the government grants a monopoly for 20 years it should be for something unique or novel – i.e. a machine, a manufacturing process or pharmaceuticals – not an essential programming technique. Brad Feld has been a long time critic of software patents and he does a pretty good job of explaining why they are a bad idea:

The WSJ explained how broad Paul’s patent claims are:

Patent Claim: Browser for Use in Navigating a Body of Information, With Particular Application to Browsing Information Represented by Audiovisual Data

Implication:The specific example in the patent might be for a news aggregator, but the patent could have applications far beyond news. The suit says the defendants are infringing the patent “by making and using websites, hardware and software to categorize, compare and display segments of a body of information.” That quote describes a lot of websites.

Patent Claim: Attention Manager for Occupying the Peripheral Attention of a Person in the Vicinity of a Display Device

Implication: “AOL, Apple, Google and Yahoo are the only companies alleged in the suit to have violated these patents. But again, the patent is for a tool that is ubiquitous online, particularly on websites that give users real-time news updates.

Alerting Users to Items of Current Interest

Implication: “Theoretically it could apply to anything that uses technology to alert you to something you’re interested in. It’s important not only for news but for e-commerce — think about notices when an item you like is on sale or when a bid has been placed on something you’re watching. This patent is the only one in the suit that all the companies are alleged to have violated.”

Brad should add Paul to the list of folks who should see Patent Absurdity.

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  • Marvin Elder January 28, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Alexander,

    I couldn’t agree more. As a serial software inventor going back to the 1980s, I have always abhored “broad” software patents, like some of those you cite in this blog.

    The U.S. Patent laws need to be changed to not reward patent trolls, because they could seriously crimp the one leading aspect of U.S. leadership, which is innovation.