Month: March 2014

Discouraging “Patent Trolls”

The US Senate is considering an amendment that would require the loser of a patent lawsuit to cover the winner’s legal costs. The intention is to discourage long, drawn-out, and baseless lawsuits filed by so-called “patent trolls.” “The troll must go,” said California Senator Dianne Feinstein. Patent trolls, or patent assertion entities (PAEs), purchase patents solely in order to demand licensing fees from as many companies and individuals as they can, helped by the threat of legal action. The typical PAE purchases patents then sends out thousands of letters to companies accusing them of infringement, demanding fees, and warning of a lawsuit if they pay up. The PAE business model is comparable to email spam: send out enough threatening letters demanding payment, and some will come back with checks attached. The House passed the amendment, which has the favor of major technology companies like Google and Apple, and the Senate is likely to follow suit.

The new law would do nothing to discourage ridiculous patents on simple technology, which are the basis of major technology companies’ success in many cases. For example, Amazon holds a patent on “one-click shopping.” Any company with an application that offers users a “one-click” online checkout must pay Amazon licensing fees. Is Amazon to be considered an innovator, or a patent troll? Apple Inc., if you can believe it, holds a design patent on round-cornered rectangles for display devices, including tablets, smartphones, and so on. Apple even patented its “slide-to-unlock” functionality; the High Court of London ruled in Apple vs. HTC that the latter company had not infringed because Apple’s patent was “obvious.” The German Federal Patent Court ruled to invalidate all of Apple’s slide-to-unlock patents in that country because they lacked “technical innovation.”

The time of patent reform is nigh. The only way to end frivolous patent lawsuits is to stop issuing ridiculous patents. The proposed legislation would protect technology companies like Apple and Google, making it easier for them to sue rivals and startups for infringement on obvious and absurd patents, and do nothing to increase the standards of new patents. What will the next cutting-edge Apple patent be? Round circles?


Facebook Developing New Technology to Expand Their Reach

Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform, announced this week its plan to bring internet access to billions of people in poor, remote areas of the planet. The Facebook Connectivity Lab is tasked to “deliver the internet to everyone” via a network of drones, satellites, and lasers. The initiative is a follow-up to Facebook’s, a multi-company project to bridge the so-called “digital divide” of internet access between wealthy and poor countries. The Lab will collaborate with various aerospace and communication technology experts, including some from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, said in a statement the goal was to enable “affordable access to basic internet services available to every person in the world.” 

Zuckerberg’s plan envisions a sophisticated fleet of solar-powered drones connected to a network of geosynchronous satellites that will beam internet access to the ground via infrared. “Connecting the whole world will require inventing new technology,” confessed Zuckerberg. Rumors abound that Facebook intends to purchase the drone-manufacturer Titan, although no formal bid has been made.  The social media giant, in conjunction with local telecoms, has already doubled the number of internet-users in Paraguay and the Phillipines using basic implementations of imagined technology.

Google, on the other hand, is already one year into its Project Loon, an ambitious scheme to connect remote areas to the internet via high-pressure balloons. Thirty of Google’s Loon balloons were launched in New Zealand last June. Loon is one of a number of projects in progress at Google’s mysterious Division X, charged with designing the next generation of technology.

Although these initiatives may at first appear entirely altruistic, Google and Facebook both have an ulterior motive for wanting to bridge the digital divide. Facebook, with 1.2 billion users worldwide, has reached the limit of its expansion. Without adding new users, Facebook faces a long road of slow stagnation. The announcement heralds Facebook’s diversification and the beginning of its transformation into more than just a social-networking site.

Designing and building the technology, however, will probably be the easiest part of Facebook’s far-reaching plan. Convincing governments to allow Facebook drones and Google ballons to use their airspaces will likely prove more challenging. Particularly since the revelations of NSA spying on foreign governments and officials, often with the colligence of US-based telecoms, leaders of countries without reliable internet access may be wary of getting online with the help of American companies. 

An Inspiring Solution for Female Hygiene in India

Arunachalam Muruganantham is a dyed-in-the-wool innovator. One day he saw the dirty rags his wife had been using as menstrual pads. He asked her why she used something to clean her body that he wouldn’t use to clean his motorcycle. Cost, she replied. If she bought expensive sanitary pads for every woman in the family, they wouldn’t have enough money to buy milk. Wanting to impress, Arunachalam went to the store and bought his wife some packaged sanitary pads. They cost about 40 times the cost of the cotton materials and clever Arunachalam was sure he could make them himself for less.

Menstruation is a delicate subject in India. Menstruating women are considered ritually unclean: specifically, they cannot touch the water supply, which makes menstrual hygiene particularly difficult. Arunachalam, following some very plucky research, discovered that fewer than 10% of women in his region used sanitary pads; most resort to sand, sawdust, leaves, or ash. 70% of reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene; a perfect storm of poverty and ignorance. Arunachalam himself only learned that menstruation was a monthly affair after he demanded immediate feedback on his self-made pads from his wife and was informed that he would have to be patient. That’s when Arunachalam starting looking for volunteers to test his prototypes.

Unable to get female volunteers to test out his pads, Arunachalam resolved to try them out himself. “I became the man who wore a sanitary pad,” he proudly admits. Arunachalam donned a football bladder full of goat’s blood with a few holes punched through it and went about his day, walking, riding, and working to perfect his prototypes. His fellow villagers said he was insane, or possessed, or had a venereal disease, or was simply a pervert.

His wife, tired of enduring rumors about his strange antics, left him. His own mother fled the home after Arunachalam turned their backyard into a laboratory to analyze the effectiveness of used sanitary pads collected from village women. His neighbors had had enough. They said he would have to leave the village, or submit to an exorcism. So he left.

Driven from his home, abandoned by his wife and mother, Arunachalam was on the verge of a breakthrough.

 He wrote letters to major Western manufacturers asking what their pads were made of and if he could have some samples. Cotton just wasn’t cutting it. Samples arrived in the mail a few weeks later: it turned out they were hard bricks of cellulose made from tree bark. He was one step closer to an affordable, effective sanitary pad. The machine to turn hard cellulose into a fluffy, absorbent material cost thousands of dollars, so Arunachalam resolved to build one of his own.

Four years later, Muruganantham had a working process to manufacture sanitary pads: three machines, one to pulverize the cellulose, the second to pack it into pads, and a third to sanitize the final product with ultraviolet light. Rather than patent his simple, ingenious process, Muruganantham resolved to install the machines in rural communities and train local women to run them. In 18 months, Muruganantham built 250 machines and distributed them to communities in the poorest states of India. Each installation ends up employing an average of 10 local women, and increases usage of sanitary pads since women no longer have to buy them from stores run by superstitious men.

Arunachalam’s invention hasn’t made him a lot of money, but it has made a difference. “If you get rich,” he says, “you have an apartment with an extra bedroom–and then you die.” His plan in the coming years is to spread his process to more countries in Asia

Viacom Settles DMCA Suit With Google

Viacom has settled a long-running lawsuit against Google over alleged copyright violations. Viacom accused Google of violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) by hosting protected content on the latter’s subsidiary YouTube.

Under the DMCA, copyright holders can demand compensation from or file “takedown” notices with content providers that host protected material. Content providers such as YouTube cannot be held liable so long as they promptly remove infringing material following a takedown notice.

Viacom filed the $1 billion lawsuit in 2007, just one year after Google snapped up YouTube for $1.65 billion. Viacom alleged its major products like South Park and The Daily Show were being distributed via YouTube while Google engaged in a policy of “willful blindness” for the sake of increased traffic.

The 7-year battle has seen its share of shenanigans. Google accused Viacom of uploading copyrighted material to YouTube and then flooding the site with automated DMCA takedown notices. According to Google, Viacom hired marketing firms to “rough up” their releases and upload them to YouTube in a campaign to smear the video-sharing site as a pirates’ bazaar. Viacom, for its part, accused Google of ignoring rampant copyright infringement and called the site’s business model “illegal.”

In a joint statement announcing the settlement the media giants praised the “collaborative dialogue” between them and said they “look forward to working more closely together” in the future.

The shift in tone raises the question of quid pro quo. How did Google compensate Viacom for its alleged DMCA violations? Google has seen scores of infringement complaints against YouTube and has resolved most of them by sharing advertising revenue with copyright holders. Viacom already has several channels on YouTube hosting its content and generating ad revenue, so it isn’t a simple matter of getting paid. Although the terms of the settlement are secret, there are no provisions for direct compensation, according to a Reuters’ source. A huge cash settlement is probably worth much less to Viacom than special content-licensing agreements with YouTube and a future of joint projects with the highly successful and cutting-edge Google.

The Pet Rock: A Story of Invention and Creativity

Great inventions are more often than not improvements on tested designs. The plough, the wheel, the printing press, all evolved from their simple to their modern forms by the work of hundreds of inventors over centuries. Other great inventions–and their corresponding patents–seem to come out of nowhere; a bolt of lightning strikes the inventor and an unprecedented new idea enters the world. An idea like the Pet Rock.

Ad man Gary Dahl “invented” the Pet Rock in a bar in Los Gatos, California, in 1975. The Pet Rock was to be the ideal pet, requiring none of the maintenance of those “outdated” biological ones. The concept was tongue-in-cheek, of course, and hugely successful, if short-lived. A year after its initial appearance, the Pet Rock was an old fad, but that didn’t stop plenty of imitators trying to steal its thunder, from the copycat “Original Pet Rock” to Pet Rock Obedience Lessons. Dahl never patented or trademarked his idea, and in retrospect it seems he didn’t have to; the fad was over and done with by the time it would have taken to approve a patent application. Dahl made millions from one simple idea and clever, aggressive marketing.

Could an idea like Dahl’s be patented today?

Natural processes and products like mineral deposits and plants expressly cannot be patented. There is no way to patent a rock as a rock. As of a few years ago US patent law allows genetically modified organisms to be protected, although the Pet Rock wasn’t really one of those. If the Pet Rock were a new invention, it would have required a utility patent. Utility patents must meet three criteria to be approved: novelty, non-obviousness, and utility. In other words, it has to be a new idea, one that would not strike an expert in the field as obvious, and it must have some use. Although it may sound ridiculous, when it was first introduced the Pet Rock met these criteria: it was a new idea, it was hardly obvious to geologists or toymakers, and it had utility, i.e., it made people laugh. With a really good patent lawyer, Dahl might have been able to get a utility patent to protect the Pet Rock as a new invention. The easier route would have been to trademark a design, etch it onto the rock, and to acquire a design patent on rocks etched with that trademark or logo.

Dahl’s story continues to inspire innovators with its simplicity, brilliance, and success, and raises questions about patents and the nature of invention. Could one, for example, patent custom cacti as home-security systems, banana peels as anti-personnel weapons, or trained song-birds as alarm clocks?


Copyrights: Another Step in Protecting Your Ideas

Inventions need patents in order to become products; and products need well-defined, well-defended copyrights. It’s important to know when an unauthorized use of your copyrighted material constitutes a violation.

Copyrights protect creative works in a tangible form of expression: artwork, photos, pictures, drawings, graphic designs; songs and recordings of all kinds; books, manuscripts, written works; plays, films, shows, and other performance art. Copyright takes effect as soon as a work is published; there’s usually no need to register with the US Copyright Office unless you plan or need to litigate violations–“unfair uses”–of your copyright.

What’s “Fair?”

Per the Copyright Act of 1976, there is no need to acquire permission to use copyrighted works for the purposes of criticism, commentary, journalism, education, scholarship, or research. This is called the fair use doctrine. Generally speaking, copyrighted works may be used without permission if the use constitutes a benefit to the public. There are limits to fair use, of course. It is a copyright violation, for example, to completely reprint a written work even for the purposes of criticism or commentary.

The key criterion of whether a particular use is “unfair” is if it negatively effects the market value of the original work. Copying a book word for word in order to criticize it would duplicate the book, devalue the original and penalize its author; thus, such a use would be unfair and the user subject to litigation for damages. Quotations may be extensive, but they cannot reprint the whole work. Making prints of a copyrighted painting as part of a commentary on its style or technique would likely be judged “unfair,” as it infringes on the copyright holder’s power to control the distribution of his or her work. Copyright violations may result in a cease and desist letter, or an infringement lawsuit, but they are not criminal or civil offenses in the US. A work that originates from a modification of copyrighted material is called a “derivative work” and is also entitled to copyright protection, provided it displays “originality.” That is, it cannot be a simple altered recreation of the original work; it must have distinct, unique features of its own.

Is it Public Yet?

The copyright laws are a tangled web and it’s not always easy to say when a work has left the briar patch and entered the public domain. A good rule of thumb is: works published before 1922 (this includes paintings, sculptures, scripts, books, photographs, phonographs, etcetera) are in the public domain. Works published between 1923 and 1963 have 95-year terms of copyright, provided they were renewed before their 28th year. You can search works registered in the United States since January 1, 1978 at All records prior to this are kept in hard copy and require a manual search; however, the US Copyright Office charges a statutory rate of $165 per hour to comb through the records. 

Twitter to Buy a Large Number of Patents From IBM

Twitter revealed this week that it spent $36 million to buy over 900 patents from IBM.

In its annual 10-K report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Twitter revealed the cost of the patent purchases totaled $36 million, an average of $40,000 per patent.

The purchase is likely a move to head off allegations of patent infringement. IBM warned Twitter of its intent to file infringement lawsuits shortly after the microblogging site went public on the New York Stock Exchange last November. Before its IPO, Twitter held only nine patents; now that number has grown to almost 1000. Twitter’s investors must be asking themselves if the purchase was a legitimate resolution of patent infringement, or simply an act of patent imperialism on the part of IBM.

Some of the patents appear to be necessary to Twitter’s business plan, such as those concerned with improved methods of video compression and delivery, instant messaging, and automated compliance with international shipping regulations that should help Twitter become an effective online-retail interface. However, of the three main patents cited by IBM in its November letter of complaint to Twitter, only one, related to interconnected computers, has changed hands between the two companies.

Either way, Twitter spent about 5% of its annual revenue to acquire IBM’s patents, and there’s no assurance for investors that another major technology firm won’t threaten more infringement lawsuits in the future.

The only solid winner is IBM. Big Blue practically holds the patent on patents; licensing fees alone net the company $1 billion annually. Recall Microsoft and Apple’s patent war on the Android platform back in 2011, which abated only after Google purchased thousands of patents from IBM to hedge against the onslaught of infringement lawsuits. Patents were meant to encourage innovators and invention, not to simply be currency in a high-tech protection racket.

Utility Patents vs. Design Patents

When new inventions are introduced and pitched, there is often talk of utility patents and design patents. A single product or invention can be awarded both a utility and a design patent, as they are two completely different entities that provide different types of protection.

A utility patent:

  • protects the function of the invention or product
  • is the most common type of patent
  • provides the most broad protection
  • takes two or three years before it provides protection
  • can protect multiple variations of the product

A design patent:

  • protects the appearance of the invention or product
  • is cheaper to acquire than a utility patent
  • only takes one to two years before providing protection
  • does not protect any functional features of the product
  • is very specific in protection (someone can get around the patent by changing something very small and ornamental on the product)

Not all products require both types of protection, but some certainly do. It’s important to evaluate your product idea and decide what features are most important to protect. Most inventors want to protect the function of their product idea, so utility patents are almost always chosen first. At the same time, some design features are so unique and so special, certain inventors may choose to ensure that their design is protected. Choosing to apply for both a utility and a design patent can be a complicated process, so patent attorneys are recommended to prevent any loopholes or administrative mistakes.

Both types of patents can be applied for at the US Patent Office, and products will be labeled as “patent pending” while the application is being reviewed.

IPCom Patent Claim Against Apple Thrown Out

Patents are challenging in the world of mobile phone and network technology, even for huge companies like Apple. IPCom is a German company that specializes in patent licensing, and it has acquired the rights to over 1,200 patents in the technology sector. It recently brought a suit against Apple because it alleges that Apple has not paid for a patent for a program they are using in their mobile phones. The program, which is now owned by IPCom, is able to call emergency services when mobile networks are overloaded.

This is not the first suit IPCom has brought against a major company. They also filed a claim against mobile phone manufacturer HTC, and the claim was thrown out by the same court that dismissed the Apple case. IPCom intends to appeal the cases. Most companies that are at risk for suits from IPCom have made requests to the European Patent Office to review the details of the technologies in question in order to end the claims before they start.

These kinds of cases demonstrate how important patent law is and how essential it is for companies to be extremely clear about their intellectual property. When there is any room for error or when designs are close but not EXACTLY the same, it opens the door for disputes and lawsuits. It doesn’t seem like this is the last suit IPCom is going to file, and it will be interesting to see how everything turns out. We’ll all have to pay attention to the cases and find out if they end up winning any of them.

Japanese Researchers Testing “Wearable” PC

A new development in wearable technology is being tested by researchers in Japan. The device works as an earclip–similar to the Bluetooth earpieces that are so popular with cellphones right now–except that it will have functions beyond the usual earphone and microphone. It will also house a GPS, a compass, a gyro-sensor, and a barometer. The device will have its own microchip and data storage capability, and it will be able to wirelessly connect to any of the user’s other electronic devices such as their tablet or smartphone.

What’s particularly remarkable about this earpiece is that it will be controlled by the user’s facial movements and tongue clicking. It will be revolutionary for people who need access to technology without the use of their hands. For example, rock climbers, motorcycle riders, and even drivers will be able to use this technology without having to remove their hands from something else more important. People with disabilities will also be able to make great use out of this device.

The developers are also testing an application that would make the earpiece work as a hearing aid and a health monitoring advice that would be able to track all kinds of things. It would measure heart rate, body temperature, time spent eating, and steps taken. It would even include an accelerometer that would alert loved ones if the user has fallen and prompt them to call emergency services.

The researchers who are testing the device are hoping that this will be the next generation of wearable technology. The believe it will be less intrusive than Google Glass or any of the smart watches, but it can still be stylish and double as a fashion accessory. It’s a great new development that is still in the prototype phase, but they are expecting to bring to market by 2016. We’ll be on the lookout for it!