from the one-down,-way-too-many-still-to-go dept
The world’s longest running patent trolling sideshow has finally been shut down. Eolas, a company with no products on the market, claimed to have invented “interactivity on the Web,” based solely on a program created by Michael Doyle back in 1993, as the director of the computer lab at UC San Francisco. This program allowed doctors to view embryos online and was patented in 1994.
At that point, innovation ceased and the lawsuits began.
Doyle took the patent and created a company he called “Eolas,” the Irish word for knowledge. Eolas never made a marketable product, but it ultimately launched a patent war that made Doyle a rich man. In 1999, he filed a lawsuit saying that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer violated his patent on “interactive” features on the web; the suit resulted in a $540 million jury verdict. Appeals ensued but were inconclusive; the case ultimately settled out for more than $100 million, with just over $30 million going to Eolas’ co-plaintiff, the University of California.
Meanwhile, Eolas’ original patent was getting serious attention. It was actually denounced by the web’s global standard-setting body in 2003. That resulted in an unusual director-ordered reexamination at the US Patent Office, but Eolas somehow emerged unscathed.
Eolas got a second patent similar to its first in 2009. By then, the business of “patent trolling” had matured and become fantastically lucrative. The company relocated to East Texas before filing suit against 20 big companies, including Apple, Perot Systems, Blockbuster, eBay, Adobe, Google, Yahoo, and Amazon. Court documents show the company was seeking more than $600 million in January 2012, a damage demand that likely had inflated to more than $1 billion by the time of trial.
This activity culminated in a very unlikely event: the inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, making his first appearance in a courtroom (East Texas, obviously) to testify against Eolas and its baseless claims about controlling key aspects of the Web. This reprised a personal effort Berners-Lee had made nearly a decade earlier when he sent a long letter to the USPTO detailing prior art and asking for the patents to be invalidated.
Fortunately, this East Texas jury went against the grain and found Eolas’ patents invalid. Eolas, of course, appealed this decision (and filed an infringement lawsuit against Facebook, Disney and Wal-Mart — presumably a reflexive action at this point). The appeal went just as badly for Eolas as its East Texas battle.
Now Eolas appears to be gone for good. The company mounted a lengthy appeal, but it was all for naught; this morning, a three-judge appeals panel affirmed the jury’s verdict without comment.
With its key patents shut down, Eolas has voluntarily stayed its current lawsuits. But its decade-long string of legal activity paved the way for the many trolls that have followed in its footsteps. The good new is that courts are finding their activities (and their patents) more than a little dubious. With added heat coming from FTC and the administration, there’s hope that future patent trolls will find the usual road to riches — threats and settlements — a bit more uphill and obstacle-laden.
Other efforts in the private sector, like Newegg’s refusal to back down when threatened by patent trolls and various prior art tools being utilized to sink lousy patent apps before they can be approved, should help minimize the damage done by non-practicing entities. In lieu of TRUE patent reform, this is the best companies and individuals can do to protect against entities that stunt true innovation and enrich themselves with the efforts of others.