Red Hat Settles Patent Case With Acacia... But Won't Share The Details

from the too-bad dept

Of the software companies out there, Red Hat has been the most aggressive in fighting against software patents. It's stood up on principle, and earlier this year even won a lawsuit from one of Acacia's many, many shell companies (and it won in East Texas too, making it that much more impressive). However, Slashdot points us to the news that, in another lawsuit involving another Acacia shell company (this time, called Software Tree) it looks like Red Hat has settled -- and, unfortunately, it's keeping pretty quiet about what happened. I'm sure that's part of the terms that Acacia negotiated (patent hoarders never want the details of settlements released), but it's unfortunate, because it leaves everyone else in the dark, and lets Acacia continue to shake down others with this patent. The patent in question (6,163,776) covers "System and method for exchanging data and commands between an object oriented system and a relational system," because, you know, without patents, no one would have ever figured that out.
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Filed Under: patents, settlements, software
Companies: acacia, red hat

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  1. identicon
    Andrew D. Todd, 11 Oct 2010 @ 6:12pm

    Double-Cross and Double-Cross.

    Whenever a large company buys a license to a dubious patent, I always suspect ulterior motives. Take a look at Clark R. Mollenhoff, _Atanasoff: Forgotten Father of the Computer_, 1988, to get an idea of IBM's misconduct in the original computer patent case. If you recall, the original patent was filed by Presper Eckert and John Mauchley in 1947, and assigned to their eventual employer, Univac (now Unisys), and actually issued in 1964, via standard continuation patent methods. Mauchley had actually visited John V. Atanasoff in Ames, Iowa, in 1941, and been his houseguest, before he, Mauchley, got involved in building computers, or any other war work, and apart from any other offense, he certainly abused Atanasoff's hospitality. IBM's lawyers eventually found out about Atanasoff in 1954, interviewed him and looked at his documents (Atanasoff was a pack rat). However, IBM did not publish the information gained, or present it to a court, but used it for private leverage in negotiating a license for approximately the probable cost of litigation. Univac then went on to sue two other computer firms, Honeywell and Control Data, which IBM did not mind having cut down to size. So I don't think that a company taking a license proves a damm thing.

    There was an element of grudge match in the suit against Control Data. Control Data had been founded by a man named William Norris, who had been part of "Arlington Hall" ("Nebraska Avenue"), the Second World War code-breaking project which was the American equivalent of Bletchley Park (Ultra) in England. At the end of the war, Norris led his troops off to form a company known as Engineering Research Associates, in Minneapolis. The moneymen merged them into Univac, but the Mauchley team and the Norris team didn't get on, so Norris took his people over the hill to form Control Data. At any rate, the defendant companies also found Atanasoff, circa 1967, and defended themselves in a trial, which, including the preliminaries, lasted from 1968 to 1973, and ended in the finding that Atanasoff had invented the computer in 1939-41.

    That said, when Microsoft settles with all kinds of patent-holders, there is an element of: "Hey, we'll pay you to go and sue those guys, instead." Patent trolls work for Microsoft, and the only real point of dispute is how much they are to be paid. Red Hat is getting to the point where it may have something of an inferiority complex about Ubuntu.


    Software patents tend to be a lot flimsier than mechanical patents. Part of the reason is the qualification of examiners. For historical reasons, Computer Science degrees are not as rigorous as Engineering degrees. This is not applicable in a place like MIT or Caltech, where the students are all workaholics,and are doing original research by their junior year, but the patent office does not recruit at places like MIT or Caltech. The Patent Office recruits at places like Clemson, and the minimal requirements laid down by the professional societies determine what students are required to learn. Roughly speaking, a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering represents about the same standard of rigor as a M.S. in Computer Science.

    The level that a M.S. in Computer Science represents, the same level represented by the B.S. in Mechanical engineering, is that of someone who has been forced to learn a lot of different styles of engineering, even those he does not find congenial, rather than just one style. This of course develops the encyclopedic mind. An encyclopedic mind happens to be a valuable thing for an upright patent examiner, because it gives him a sixth sense that a particular patent application is not quite kosher, and, playing a hunch, he knows enough to go looking for evidence.

    Of course there is the Computer Engineering degree, but that is essentially an Electrical Engineering degree with a taste of Computer Science tacked on. Computer Engineering majors get hired in preferences to Computer Science majors, but that is not because they know more Computer Science. Rather, it is due to a belief that someone who got through Thermodynamics, and Statics and Dynamics, and Electromagnetics must be pretty smart.

    The men who founded Computer Science departments, people like Arthur W. Burks at Michigan, wanted Computer Science to be a kind of quantitative liberal art. They didn't expect students to learn all there was to know about computer programming, but they hoped that students would do something on the outside. That is, students would learn about Invertebrate Biology or Greek Lyric Poetry, and would then turn around and use Computer Science to illuminate Invertebrate Biology or Greek Lyric Poetry. The computer science professors only required students to learn those parts of Computer Science which were most obviously useful. This didn't work out very well in practice. As computers became more widely available, people who merely wanted to program didn't need to go to college to learn to do it. The people who turned up in the Computer Science department's intake tended not to be the polymaths the department had been intended for, but merely people who wanted to acquire a technical profession with less work than would be required for an engineering degree. People like that were not interested in Invertebrate Biology or Greek Lyric Poetry, or much of anything else. They took a lot of freshman-level survey courses in standard areas, and when they graduated, went looking for upscale clerk's jobs-- such as that of Patent Examiner.

    For political reasons, the Federal Civil Service has to treat degrees the same according to their nominal level. A bachelor's degree has to be rated GS-5, and a masters degree has to be rated GS-9, whatever the subject. The result is that patent examining is a bit weaker in computer software than it is in a more mechanical field.

    To: Ronald J. Riley:

    If you will look in the Slashdot thread, you will note that already at least one "prior artist" has surfaced, who is willing to swear to having done it first.

    There is also a list of earlier commercial products:

    More fundamentally, looking at the matter under KSR v. Teleflex, there is an established practice of "migrating" data structuring and abstraction methods from the level of variables (temporary storage, under the control of the application program) to the level of files and databases (permanent storage under the control of an operating system component). I think one can make a good case that, given some kind of feature such as object-orientation, it was obvious to extend it from the temporary storage to the permanent storage. There were some operating systems twenty and thirty years ago which blurred the distinction between temporary storage and permanent storage (I believe, the Pick operating system, though I would have to check the reference).

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