A "patent thicket" is when so many different entities claim patents on a particular space or product, it becomes nearly impossible for any company to actually put a product out in that space without either having to pay ridiculous patent license fees or face a series of patent lawsuits. There are plenty of patent thickets out there -- and a big one is in the VoIP space. The concept of using internet protocol for voice communications has been out there for ages, and there were lots of attempts to get such a service working in the late 90s. While technically it was possible, the real problem was that most users didn't want to go through the hassle of setting things up to use VoIP. Vonage was the first company to get past that hurdle by making things easy: you plug a box into your modem, and then you plug in a phone -- and everything works just like your current telephone. It was this simplicity, combined with a big advertising campaign, that made VoIP popular. It certainly wasn't the basic technology advances that almost everyone in the space had figured out well before. Yet, Vonage's ability to attract users made lots of other firms jealous, leading to a series of patent lawsuits. Earlier this year, under pressure from Wall Street, Vonage agreed to settle such patent lawsuits from Verizon
, as well as some tiny patent holders
. As we noted at the time, this was simply flinging the gates wide open -- and anyone who had any kind of patent related to VoIP should probably sue Vonage as fast as possible.
AT&T couldn't resist
and dredged up some VoIP patents itself. And, sure enough, Vonage quickly settled
. Of course, that wouldn't be the end. Now along comes Nortel, who has also sued Vonage for infringing on nine separate patents
. To be fair, Vonage may have also brought this one on itself, having first sued Nortel over its own patents, leading Nortel to retaliate. You would have hoped that Vonage would have learned its lesson that patent battles aren't particularly helpful, but it appears that the company took away the wrong lesson, and is hoping to get in on the patent dollar bonanza. All we're really seeing is a blatantly clear explanation of how patents are holding back innovation, rather than promoting the progress of useful sciences. Update
In the comments, someone from Vonage notes that the company did not quite initiate this, as the lawsuit actually came from another company that Vonage acquired.