[Discussioni] Patent spending: How the net is being trade marked
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Lun 26 Lug 2004 20:20:12 CEST
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent
Patents that threaten the way we use the web are being targeted in a new
Do you want to own part of the world wide web?
I don't mean your own domain, or a web server in a rack or a piece of
ancient computer technology used in the net's forerunner Arpanet.
I mean some of the software that makes the web what it is today, such as
the code behind video streaming, pop-up windows or the technology that
lets you use a credit card online.
The rights to those three basic ways of web life have been snapped up by
other people, but with some ingenuity - and money - you too could patent
your own slice of web life and cash in.
Owning a patent is a very strong way to protect something you consider
to be your own says George Godar, a technology partner at law firm DLA.
"A patent is a contract with the state and the state says that if you
disclose the invention and make it public it will grant you a monopoly
for 20 years," he says.
This means that even if someone else comes up with the same idea
independently, because the state says you own it, you can charge them
licence fees or sue them to force them to stop using it.
By contrast, copyright is much weaker, because to get any legal hold
over someone using your idea you have to prove that they copied it.
"But," says Mr Godar, "if they can show it was independently derived
it's a complete defence."
Typically, large firms take out a patent and take steps to protect it
because of the huge amounts of cash they invest in research and
development of new products.
Of late, patents have started to be granted on software and the basic
ways millions of us do things on the net.
This is possible thanks to a couple of US court decisions that let
organisations patent the novel ways they do business.
The most famous of these was Amazon's patenting of its one-click online
"In the internet world, first mover advantage is critical to a lot of
business methods," says Jason Schultz, a staff attorney and former
patent lawyer who now works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
"If you can get a patent on it you can close the door behind you and be
the only one out there doing a particular thing," he says.
Amazon sued - and later settled with - fellow bookseller Barnes and
Noble over its use of one-click shopping. Now, Apple's iTunes is one of
the few licensing that Amazon-owned innovation.
More recently, it has been individuals who have been seeking, and
getting, patents on some very broadly used technologies such as video
streaming and using a credit card online.
They can do this, says Mr Schultz, because the sheer number of patents
being applied for is overwhelming the investigators who scrutinise the
The 3,000 examiners at the US Patent and Trademark Office handle around
300,000 applications per year. By comparison the UK's Patent Office
handles about 30,000 per year.
Examiners have about 10-15 hours to scrutinise each one and decide if it
is sufficiently different to the others.
Unless it has a good reason to reject an application, says Mr Schultz,
the government has to grant it.
This plus the fact that prior art in the computer world is not well
documented and patent lawyers working on contingency, has led to a flood
of software patent applications granted to individuals.
Many of these patent owners are now pursuing small net-based firms for
infringement of their invention.
Although business methods cannot be patented in Europe, the granting of
these patents could hit people running web operations here that serve an
Defence against such an action typically costs between $500,000 and $1m
(US), which usually leads the small firms to settle rather than see if
the patent actually has any merit.
Patents granted on the same innovation in different parts of the world
could mean web firms paying several times to use the same technology.
Such "royalty stacking" could prove expensive, says Mr Godar.
The EFF has now begun a campaign to name and shame the most "egregious"
patents that threaten to harm life on the net.
It ran a campaign to find the most outrageous and from the 200 it turned
up selected the 10 most wanted.
Now it is conducting prior art searches and soon hopes to challenge some
of the overly broad patents that have been granted.
Sadly, says Mr Schultz, for those that have already paid to use these
technologies there is little hope of them getting their money back.
EFF MOST WANTED PATENTS
One-click online shopping
Online shopping carts
Internationalising domain names
Targeted banner adverts
Paying with a credit card online
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