When Patents Are Patently Absurd

Is Paul Allen a patent troll now? The same Paul Allen that was Bill Gates’ partner in Microsoft? Paul Allen who is worth billions of dollars?

Oh no. Say it ain’t so.

Last week wired.com reported Paul Allen Files Patent Lawsuits Against Entire Web … Except Microsoft. Allen, Bill Gates’ original partner in Microsoft, and an extremely wealthy man, is suing nearly everybody who is anybody on the internet (“Google, Apple, Yahoo, Netflix, Facebook, AOL and eBay, among others”) because he has the patent. Wired said:

The four patents at issue allegedly cover basics of online commerce including recommending products to a user based on what they are currently looking at and allowing readers of a news story to see other stories based on the current one, while two others relate to showing other information on a web page such as news updates or stock quotes.

I am not one of those people who – quoting Joel Stein’s latest column in Time – “want everything to be free except what they happen to do to make a living.”

But I do think the patent system is broken. The system was unable to keep up with technology, so patents were issued that made no sense. And patent trolls take advantage.

Wikipedia defines patent troll:

a pejorative term used for a person or company that enforces its patents against one or more alleged infringers in a manner considered unduly aggressive or opportunistic, often with no intention to manufacture or market the patented invention.

Of course people should get to own their own work. If you invent something really useful, like a light bulb or a phonograph or a plane, or a disk drive or a new kind of scanner, you should get to make a ton of money with it.

But who issued these patents? Wasn’t this all fairly obvious? These are ideas, not inventions. And who the hell knows who was the first to have an idea? And do we reward the first to patent it, when it shouldn’t have been patented in the first place? That’s just dumb.

Disclosure: I’m biased. I’ve been close to two different stupid patent suits where somebody took obvious technology and connected it to some dumb old existing patent and sued. And it was cheaper to pay up than fight. So, business is business, the trolls won.

Also, I’m hoping Paul Allen is actually just intending to make a point. If I remember it right, amazon.com had a patent for one-click purchasing, and they brought it up, made their point, and then behaved like decent citizens (do I have that wrong? If so, please tell me.) And I think Compuserve had a claim on the GIF graphic format, and didn’t insist on pursuing it. Maybe that’s what’s happening here.

I hope so.

And I’d like to credit Read/Write Web and cartoonist Rob Cottingham for the cartoon here. It’s from Cartoon: So Sue Me on Read/Write Web.

(Image credit: from Read/Write Web: click here for that post.)


  • Charles Robinson says:

    Okay, thanks for letting me know. Not sure what happened. Maybe a browser hiccup. 🙂

    Anyway, yes, Amazon did file suit against Barnes & Noble over one-click ordering immediately after getting their patent approved. And Unisys did require all commercial software that used LZW to license it. They also required that all software that read LZW software be licensed, even if it was free. They didn’t enforce that until 8 years after the patent was released, though, which is one reason for the backlash. LZW is the compression used in TIFF and GIF formats, and because of the licensing ticked off people they created the PNG format to compete with GIF. I had citations and such in my other response, but it’s not too difficult to find sources. 🙂

  • Charles Robinson says:

    I wrote a somewhat lengthy reply answering some of your questions. Was it deleted intentionally? Did I say something inappropriate?

    • Tim Berry says:

      Charles, no, definitely not deleted intentionally. Your comments are always welcome, and in fact your email is recognized so your comments are accepted automatically. I don’t remember seeing it, definitely didn’t delete it on purpose. Tim

  • Tim Berry says:

    Rob, on the contrary, thanks to you for a funny and also very much to the point cartoon. Really good stuff. And for other readers here, Rob’s work is at …



  • Rob Cottingham says:

    Hi, Tim –

    Thanks for sharing the cartoon with your readers (and for keeping the credit nice and readable!) – I’m glad you liked it!

  • Dale B. Halling says:

    Hi Tim,

    I don’t know anything about these patents, but I do know you are right that the Patent Office has not kept up. The reason why it has not kept up is that Congress has taken over $800 M in user fees from the Patent Office and diverted it to their pet projects. If Congress was subject to Sarbanes Oxley they would all be in jail.

    The Patent Office is supported by user fees, it does not take any tax dollars. Unfortunately, when you write out your check to the Patent Office it is really deposited in the General Treasury. The money is they appropriated back to the Patent Office. In the last two decades, Congress decided they had better things to do than give the money back to the Patent Office, even though the checks were made out to the Patent Office. Stopping this diversion would do a lot to improve the promptness and accuracy of the Patent Office.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Hmmm, very interesting, if you haven’t clicked Uncle John’s link to the wikipedia entry for Robert Kearns, in his comment, do it. Definitely adds depth to the discussion.

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