from the but-the-patent-system-encourage-innovation,-right? dept
Joe Mullin over at Ars Technica has the story of a patent troll, Blackbird Technologies, which was founded by (of course) two patent attorneys to buy up patents and shakedown companies with legal threats. Blackbird Technologies has now sued Netflix, Soundcloud, Vimeo and a variety of other companies over US Patent 7,174,362, issued in 2007 (filed for in 2000) on a "method and system for supplying products from pre-stored digital data in response to demands transmitted via computer network."
Specifically, the lawsuits are targeting various "download to consume offline" features on various content websites. Netflix, of course, just famously launched that long-requested feature, which is useful in cases where people have slow or no internet access (e.g., taking your laptop on an airplane without internet access). If anyone thinks that this kind of feature was developed because of this patent, they're being delusional. And that's especially true because the patent itself isn't even about downloading content from the network for offline viewing. Instead, it's actually about someone ordering some content over the internet, having that content automatically burned to a CD-ROM and having that CD-R shipped off to the person. As Mullin notes, the true irony here, is that the guy who got the patent in the first place, Sungil Lee, may have been inspired by Netflix, which already had a very popular business shipping DVD's ordered online to customers:
Context is important when looking at Lee's patent. It's extremely unlikely an inventor writing up the idea of a web-based system for creating and shipping CD-Rs, in the year 2000, was not acutely aware of Netflix—whose DVDs-in-the-mail business had begun blowing up. If there was any copying at all, it was Lee copying Netflix's idea. But in the upside-down world of patent trolls, it's Blackbird who gets to claim the mantle of defending innovation, while it accuses Netflix of being the copycat.
And the thing is, even the idea of having content written automatically to CD-Rs was hardly new in 2000. This patent never should have been granted. I remember back in 1998, when I was working for a company that did electronic distribution of software being pitched by multiple companies that were working on similar solutions, and even seeing a demonstration of one such company at COMDEX in the fall of 1998 (if I remember correctly, to demonstrate how it worked they burned me a copy of Internet Explorer 5) which had just been released. So this patent never should have been granted in the first place. On top of that, to sue companies for doing the obvious thing of offering downloads for offline viewing is a clear abuse of the patent system.
The lawsuits were filed in Delaware, which has become the "new East Texas" in recent years due to a series of patent troll friendly rulings. Every time we hear stories about how patent trolling is on the decline, we see stories like this, suggesting patent trolling is still a huge problem and still a huge cost on innovation, rather than a boon to innovation.