by Timothy Lee
Thu, Mar 6th 2008 10:21pm
A site called Prepaid Reviews reports that four US wireless carriers have been hit with a patent lawsuit from a company called Intellect Wireless. Prepaid Reviews writes that "If Intellect Wireless was a firm that bought patents with the implicit intent of lawsuit, I could talk about the need to reform patent law. But if these are original inventions by Henderson, he has a case." I think this fundamentally misconceives the nature of the "patent troll" problem. The fundamental problem is about patent quality, not about motivations or business strategy of the people abusing the system. Advocates of patent reform like to focus on classic patent trolling firms whose only business is lawsuits because the extortionate nature of the transaction is most obvious in those cases. But if an otherwise-legitimate company gets an overly broad or obvious patent and proceeds to sue everyone in sight, that's still a problem, even if the firm really was the first person to develop a product fitting the description of the patent. Consider one of the patents in this case, for example. While the patent makes a lot of claims and it's difficult to decipher legalese, the patent appears to be claiming a monopoly on the concept of "visual voicemail" systems where you can see a list of all your voicemail messages, and information about who sent them to you, and then choose which messages you want to listen to first. This is a clever idea, to be sure, and it's possible nobody had done it yet in 2003. But it's also a pretty straightforward application of ideas that had been around long before 2003. I've been able to see a list of my text messages and decide which one I want to read first since long before 2003, for example. To a software engineer, voice is just another type of data, so "visual voicemail" is an obvious extension of "visual text messages." In an ideal world, a patent examiner would have recognized this and rejected Henderson's patent. But in the real world, the courts have made the rules for patenting so permissive that a ton of patents get awarded for obvious concepts. This would be a bad thing even if there weren't any patent trolls around.
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