IP Attorneys Increasingly Getting Their Own Patents And Suing

from the joining-in-the-party dept

A year ago, the story of patent attorney Scott Harris started making headlines. While being an IP attorney at a prestigious law firm, on the side, Harris had been getting his own patents, and then using a shell organization to sue companies for infringing. Some of the companies sued were represented by the firm that Harris worked for. Talk about a conflict of interest, right? Well, reporter Joe Mullin has discovered that these sorts of things are increasingly common. Various IP attorneys involved in patent hoarding lawsuits are seeing how lucrative it can be to just get a patent and sue -- and so they're eagerly jumping into the game themselves. Mullin dug up a bunch of cases of IP lawyers getting their own patents, and then suing over those patents, outside of their day job. Not surprisingly, many of the patents seem highly questionable (a patent on a car entertainment system that has a radio in front with DVD video in back.)

However, the bigger question is the conflict of interest. First, with lawyers getting their own patents, there are always going to be questions about whether any of the patents are really the work of clients rather than the lawyer themselves. In fact, in the case of the car entertainment system above, one of the companies that's been sued over the patent points out that "two diagrams and several columns of text" appear to be directly plagiarized from another company's patents -- who just so happened to be a client of law firm the lawyer worked for. Oops.

The second potential conflict of interest is, as with Harris, about suing companies that are represented by the law firm the lawyer in question works for. In some cases, the lawyers dance around this. For example, in one of the cases Mullin discusses, the lawyer sued three of the four companies who own CareerBuilder. The lawyer did not sue the fourth owner, the Tribune Company. Why? While there's no official explanation, it's not hard to figure it out. The Tribune Company is a client of the law firm the guy works for. The other three owners are not. So, basically, the Tribune Company got lucky that the guy with the patent just happens to work for a law firm it uses. Perhaps the law firm sees this as a way of "locking in" clients: leave us, and one of our lawyers will sue you for patent infringement.

Either way, the article is a pretty depressing look at the state of patent law and patent lawyers these days.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 10th, 2008 @ 1:46pm

    Why you say this is a "depressing look at the state of patent law" is not clear given that the articles only talk about a few lawyers who apparently have invented some things and received patents on their inventions.

    As for your asserting that the article represents a "depressing look at the state of....patent lawyers these days", please explain with reference to uncontroverted facts what it is that these very few persons have done that are illegal, immoral and/or unethical.

     

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  2.  
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    Stephan Kinsella (profile), Sep 10th, 2008 @ 1:50pm

    One Patent Lawyer Agrees With you

    And that's me. It's getting worse and worse--patent attorneys' and practitioners' defenses of the system is getting more and more dishonest and hysterical as the illegitimacy of the patent system becomes more and more apparent. Sad. As I explain in Against Intellectual Property, there is no justifying the patent system. It is unjust, basically tantamount to legalized theft.

     

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  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 10th, 2008 @ 2:06pm

    Patent this!

    F*ck you

     

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  4.  
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    discojohnson, Sep 10th, 2008 @ 2:36pm

    IANAL

    but couldn't i just come up with a product and give it away for free, but charge people for an instructional manual on how to operate it?

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 10th, 2008 @ 3:07pm

    Re:

    Oh wow, do you have reading comprehension issues? There's a lot of immorality in PLAGIARIZING A CLIENT'S PATENT, then SUING SAID CLIENT WITH THE GRANTED, PLAGIARIZED PATENT.

     

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  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Software Developer, Sep 10th, 2008 @ 3:08pm

    Re: IANAL

    yes, in fact it has already been done, they call it Linux

     

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  7.  
    identicon
    Angry dude, Sep 10th, 2008 @ 3:09pm

    Cue rant

    *Insert senseless ad hominum rant/attack here with nothing to do with actual article*

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 10th, 2008 @ 3:19pm

    Re: Re:

    If you read the history of this matter you will quickly discover that the your understanding of the facts is incorrect.

     

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  9.  
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    Mike (profile), Sep 10th, 2008 @ 3:39pm

    Re:

    Why you say this is a "depressing look at the state of patent law" is not clear given that the articles only talk about a few lawyers who apparently have invented some things and received patents on their inventions.

    The point should be obvious, though perhaps not to many of those who make their money as patent attorneys (Mr. Kinsella below suggests that there are some who see it however).

    As for your asserting that the article represents a "depressing look at the state of....patent lawyers these days", please explain with reference to uncontroverted facts what it is that these very few persons have done that are illegal, immoral and/or unethical.

    Again, if you cannot see what is problematic with what is happening, I would suggest that says quite a lot about your moral compass. The issues are outlined already in both the post and the article. I've debated with you in the past questions of conflict of interest, and you have shown that you believe in a much lower bar. Fair enough.

    Others would likely disagree with you.

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    Angry Itch, Sep 10th, 2008 @ 5:02pm

    Re: Re:

    I do! The law should protect the people, and not provide opportunities for the scam artists.

     

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  11.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 10th, 2008 @ 6:32pm

    Conflict of Interest

    In the past, I had to fill out a form every year which stated that I did not have any conflict of interest. Granted, this was with a firm that worked government contracts. But we needed to avoid even the appearence of conflict or impropriety.

    Apparently this approach is not shared in other areas of the business world.
    Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_of_interest

     

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  12.  
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    sarge, Sep 10th, 2008 @ 6:40pm

    big shocker

    Anonymous coward is a lawyer go figure... his moral compass is pointed south

     

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  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 10th, 2008 @ 9:27pm

    I daresay that the vast, vast majority of attorneys, myself included, look askance at those who give the impression they are scaming the system. The number engaged in what may be perceived as scamming is so small in number that they represent a percentage of all attorneys that is almost invisible. These few and their actions are many times debated and generally not looked upon with favor by other members of the bar.

    The problem with those who are noted in the article is that the devil is in the details, and upon close examination most of the objections about unseemly conduct do not stand up to an inquiry of the facts. The "perception" makes for good headlines, but there is seldom a follow up by the media whenever "perception" is proven to be inaccurate.

    These is nothing fundamentally wrong with an attorney also being an "inventor" (chester Carlson is one example) as long as their activities do not violate the rules of professional conduct governing the practice of law before state and federal authorities. Conflict of interest is a matter that is taken quite seriously, and it is a foolish attorney who tries to cut corners guided by self-interest.

    In view of the above, and for other good reasons too numerous to mention, this is why I asked Mr. Masnick for facts supporting his broad brushstrokes concerning this issue. It is easy matter to proffer broad generalizations, but quite another matter to articulate them with specificity that is factually based.

     

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  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 11th, 2008 @ 5:33am

    Reminds me of watching Republicans

    It’s just like watching the last 8 years of corrupt, inept and intellectually insulting Republican leadership in Government. Their rampant corruption and open distaste for constitutional and ethical limitations on their own personal greed, combined with an obvious contempt for the intelligence and understanding of the American people, basically lead them to destroy themselves in an orgy of abusing near unlimited power (so much so LOL they are now running on a platform of CHANGE! . . . now that’s funny!). It appears this same destructive narcissistic pattern may be appearing in IP law as well.

    This usually happens when greed and contempt for the public combine as the result of much undeserved success. The thinking of “these people are so stupid, we can get away with anything” just seems to naturally drift into the consciousness of people in these situations and usually leads to their own self-collapse.

     

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  15.  
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    dinnerbell, Sep 11th, 2008 @ 6:29am

    Re:

    yes mike, such a broad statement is unsupported by the evidence your present. once again, you jump to conclusions.

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 11th, 2008 @ 7:42am

    Re: Re: Re:

    " In fact, in the case of the car entertainment system above, one of the companies that's been sued over the patent points out that "two diagrams and several columns of text" appear to be directly plagiarized from another company's patents -- who just so happened to be a client of law firm the lawyer worked for. Oops. "

     

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  17.  
    identicon
    Enid of Enoughborough, Sep 11th, 2008 @ 8:05am

    Re:

    Clearly, you must have aced "Moral Bankruptcy for Lawyers 101." Even though it stinks like shit, looks like shit, tastes like shit, and sticks to your shoes like shit, it isn't explicitly cited as "shit" in the legal ethics handbook, so you can smugly look the other way. We shouldn't really care about the small percentage of attorneys who are screwing a large segment of society, because, well, they're just a small percentage.

    Maybe we should forget about prosecuting criminals, too, because after all, they're just a small percentage of the population.

    No wonder people (you know, those of us with morals and ethics) hate lawyers.

     

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  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 11th, 2008 @ 8:07am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Tell you what. Run this by Irah Donner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and see what he has to say about the patents he acquired and the history associated with their being asserted against various parties.

     

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  19.  
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    another mike, Sep 11th, 2008 @ 3:10pm

    If my lawyer stepped across the aisle to prosecute a case against me, I think I'd have a few words for the state bar association. Despite his soulless shysterism, I almost tolerate him since he keeps me out of trouble. So long as he stays on my side of the courtroom, the only bar we need to be concerned about is the one serving drinks. He's got all my money so he's buying ;)

     

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  20.  
    identicon
    Marion E. Cavanaugh Reg No 40550, Sep 11th, 2008 @ 6:22pm

    Article on Patent Lawyers

    Knowing how shoddy some journalists and bloggers are, I think I am entitled to say "pretty depressing to see the state of Communication law and journalists/bloggers these days".
    My point is that there are reputable patent attorneys, and much patent law is excellent. I personally am about as reputable an attorney as you can find, and I specialize in small inventors because I think it is the thing to do (at MUCH less money than I would make in other areas of patent law!).

    I will say, anyone who takes a few isolated instances, and morphs them into a general indictment, is NOT reputable!

     

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  21.  
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    Mike (profile), Sep 11th, 2008 @ 10:22pm

    Re: Article on Patent Lawyers

    My point is that there are reputable patent attorneys

    I never stated, or even implied, otherwise.

    I was not damning ALL patent attorneys.

    I was merely damning the state of the patent system that made it so that *more* patent attorneys were doing this.

    And, I find it difficult to believe that you actually think Joe Mullin was a bad journalist. He dug up all sorts of interesting info, and quoted multiple folks noting that this was a growing trend.

    Neither of us said that it was common -- just growing. But the reasons that it's growing are why I noted that the patent system is in sad shape, in that it encourages this type of behavior.

    If you are such a great lawyer, I would think you would understand the difference between what I actually said, and what you claimed I said.

    I think you owe both me and Joe an apology.

     

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  22.  
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    Mike (profile), Sep 12th, 2008 @ 2:16am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Tell you what. Run this by Irah Donner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and see what he has to say

    Uh... so we're supposed to run this by one of the lawyers mentioned in the article for his questionable practices? As if he's not biased?

     

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  23.  
    identicon
    John, Sep 12th, 2008 @ 7:00am

    Lawyers?

    "First, we kill all the lawyers."

    No further comment required.

     

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  24.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2008 @ 8:23am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but do not journalists as a general rule try and get quotes for the record, even from "biased" parties?

     

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  25.  
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    Mike (profile), Sep 12th, 2008 @ 1:01pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but do not journalists as a general rule try and get quotes for the record, even from "biased" parties?

    Mullin did try to contact everyone in the story, and mostly got a big "no comment." If they're so proud of what they're doing, why would that happen?

    Are you actually accusing Mullin of not contacting Donner? As the article made clear, he did contact him and Donner wouldn't respond.

    So, yes, Mullin did exactly what you asked, and Donner hid in shame.

    But that wasn't the point you were originally making. The reason you brought up Donner was to suggest that none of us can comment on the situation until Donner has given approval.

    Yeah. Right.

     

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  26.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 13th, 2008 @ 8:45am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    "But that wasn't the point you were originally making. The reason you brought up Donner was to suggest that none of us can comment on the situation until Donner has given approval."

    No...mine was merely to note that conclusions drawn and opinions expressed using an incomplete set of facts do little to accurately inform the public and engender informed discussion.

     

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  27.  
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    Mike (profile), Sep 13th, 2008 @ 1:27pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    No...mine was merely to note that conclusions drawn and opinions expressed using an incomplete set of facts do little to accurately inform the public and engender informed discussion.

    Donner had every opportunity to respond. He chose not to. I think we can draw perfectly clear conclusions from that.

     

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  28.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 13th, 2008 @ 7:46pm

    "Donner didn't respond to questions for this story."

    The above is taken from the linked article. Personally, I do not believe it contains sufficient information from which I can reasonably draw any definite conclusions.

     

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  29.  
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    Mike (profile), Sep 14th, 2008 @ 10:11pm

    Re:

    The above is taken from the linked article. Personally, I do not believe it contains sufficient information from which I can reasonably draw any definite conclusions.

    I actually spoke with Joe Mullin about it. So, yes, I can draw a definite conclusion.

    In the meantime, could you explain why you think no one should be allowed to comment on it without getting his official blessing first? Seems odd.

     

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  30.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 15th, 2008 @ 4:44pm

    Re: Re:

    In the meantime, could you explain why you think no one should be allowed to comment on it without getting his official blessing first? Seems odd.

    I see nothing odd about believing that the accuracy of relevant facts be independently verified before publishing an article. Otherwise, an article turns into little more than a gossip column.

     

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  31.  
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    Mike (profile), Sep 16th, 2008 @ 3:48am

    Re: Re: Re:

    I see nothing odd about believing that the accuracy of relevant facts be independently verified before publishing an article. Otherwise, an article turns into little more than a gossip column.

    Thus all any guilty party need do is refuse to comment, and suddenly, under MLS's logic, no article can be published.

    Brilliant.

     

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  32.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 16th, 2008 @ 8:09am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    ...And, under techdirt's logic, it is perfectly fine for an article to be published without the need to garner facts before publishing a story. If a reporter want to engage in investigative journalism, it seems only proper that he she actually investigate.

    Small wonder Thomas Jefferson generally eschewed reading newspapers and felt better informed because of it.

     

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  33.  
    icon
    Mike (profile), Sep 16th, 2008 @ 11:28am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    MLS, can you please explain how Mullin "did not garner facts"?

    That would be much appreciated.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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