back to article Paul Allen's patent madness not worth single penny

Businesses aren't built on ideas. They're built on execution. Google didn't win because it was the first to the search market. It won because it did search better than anyone else, and devised an ingenious way to monetize it. This, more than anything else, is what makes the US patent system, overrun by patent trolls, so broken …


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  1. FARfetched

    Why not just come out and say it?

    Paul Allen is now a patent troll. Any good he may have done in the past is wiped out by that simple fact.

    1. Big-nosed Pengie


      What good? He was one of the founders of Microsoft, wasn't he?

    2. Anonymous Coward


      We all laugh now at the Wired World Paul Allen dreamed of so long ago, but watch... if he wins, every computer in America could be pitched into the furnace. Welcome to the new Dark Ages... this time it's over information and not feudalism.

  2. dr2chase

    I've not heard this timely-enforcement theory about patents before

    Trademarks work that way, sure, and also trade secrets, but my understanding was that a patent, was a patent, period. Same for copyright -- the failure of ASCAP or BMI or RIAA or whoever to prosecute me for singing "Happy Birthday" to me at a party, does not change the fact that they can go after the Wallace and Gromit guys to get it yanked from the DVD version of The Wrong Trousers.

    What's more interesting to me is if these patents claim (for example) "a chain of volcanic islands in the Pacific", and he's suing Japan, or if they claim "a chain of volcanic islands in the northern hemisphere of the Pacific, with the youngest and most active volcanos on the largest and southeasternmost island" and he's suing Hawaii.

    1. John Angelico

      Estoppel is it's name...

      ... and there must be a fancy 'merkan name too.

      It is the legal principle that if you fail to take action within a reasonable time to defend your position, it is deemed wholly indefensible (with thanks to Sir Joseph Porter KCB).

      If someone steals your property, and you then fail to lock doors, restrict access, install an alarm etc, then the next time a burglar fronts up you may discover that your insurer isn't going to pay on your claim.

      And THEN you may discover that Burglar Bill can't be prosecuted because there is no provable loss via the insurance company (it can happen folks).

      So watch it!

  3. Mage Silver badge

    What's to say

    The article says it all.

    A Patent should enable someone to "make" one just from the Publish patent, but pay royalties.

    Most patents are either non-novel broad brush wordfests or pointless drivel.

    The point of a patent is to protect what you are producing now, to have a temporary monopoly, not to stop it happening at all, stifle innovation or make money years later as a parasite of all the people that did go out and do something.

  4. Anonymous Coward


    I'd feel more pity, but Allen was not a victim impoverished by the merciless exploitation of his intellectual property.

    He amassed a $31.5bn fortune, and blew $7bn of that on Charter communications (Nebuad anyone?), and made a voluntary decision to give his wealth away.

    And the patents? Supposedly they concern "pops up on a computer screen while the user is engaged in another activity". Nice.

    1. Andus McCoatover


      I reckon after that comment there'll be a rush* on left-handed computer mice...

      (Obviousy, chose a good colour for the 'Jobsworth')

      10/10, Squire!

      * Maybe I left "th" off the 'rus ', we don't wanna go and intrude onto Lester's domain.

    2. SlabMan

      A patent on pop-ups?

      We better stop using them then.

      What a dark day for web-poker-dating-agency-chat-line-viagra-herbal-steroid-work-from-home-opportunities.

    3. Sureo

      Well then...

      ... if he can sue everyone and get rid of pop-ups, I'd like that.

      1. Leeroy

        Not all "pop ups" are bad

        Email notification with subject is probably counted as a pop- up i know Thunderbird looks a bit like a pop-up, not used Outlook for a while but its probably similar.

        Text message notification on a mobile, on my HTC it shows a picture in the top bar and get my attention when im doing something else.

        This (and many other) patent is crap , its like saying you can't raise your voice to get somones attention when they are involved in another activity.

  5. nelly

    Perhaps he wants the lawsuits to fail

    Having a bunch of software patent lawsuits fail will create a precedence. This will undermine the threat of software lawsuits, benefiting the industry.

    That would be a good thing and create a real legacy for Paul Allen -The man who fixed the patent system.

    Not my idea - I heard it on a podcast.

    1. asdf

      as if

      Unfortunately the one thing lawyers and especially judges are good at is dragging a case on forever (increasing their billable hours) while at the same time making sure as little gets resolved precedent wise as possible (precedents scare judges as it tends to hurt their political future).

  6. Andus McCoatover

    Are we looking at the start of...

    ...a (rather sick) SCO-type joke?

    PJ (Groklaw) - get Your red dress out of the wardrobe.

    Like SCO's Mousetrap shenanigans, this'll run and run. Pity McBride's surname wasn't Christie, nor his obituary/biography writer wasn't Roald (Tales of the Bleeding Obvious) Dahl.


  7. Simon Zerafa
    Thumb Up

    Perhaps Mr Allen is a genius?


    Perhaps Mr Allen is attempting to show that patents on obvious ideas or which are overly broad are nonsense.

    Once is lawsuit fails (and fails by design) then no-one else will be able to enforce them either! :-)

    Epic Win for all involved and the patent system gets a long overdue overhall.



  8. Rob Cottingham


    Thanks for sharing my cartoon, Matt - you just made my day!

    I can only guess at the motivations behind this lawsuit. But for what it's worth never underestimate the yearning for recognition and credit for an innovation. I wouldn't be surprised if this was at least as much about leaving a personal legacy as it is about suing for damages.


    -- Rob Cottingham -

    1. david wilson

      @Rob Cottingham

      >"I wouldn't be surprised if this was at least as much about leaving a personal legacy as it is about suing for damages"

      But surely, Paul Allen, is *already* famous worldwide as the guy who, er, made the coffee for Bill Gates, or something like that?

    2. Andus McCoatover


      Love the cartoons, thanks, Rob!

  9. Tom 7 Silver badge

    This is not an attempt to fix the patent system

    All any other patent troll would have to say is 'my patent isn't a shit as his were' to get his time in court trying to blackmail the opposition. You fix the patent system through the government - and they bought them a long time ago.

    The only precedent this will set is the amount of money the guy has seems to be inversely proportional to the merits of the patents. It will be a long time before the dollar/merit ratio is so balanced in the lawyers favour. There must be champagne flowing even at the law school for complete idiots.

    I am going to beat any signs of morality or capability out of my children and make sure they become lawyers. I want them to have part of this gravy train when they graduate in 20 years or so - the last thing they need is skills or conscience to distract them.

    1. Shannon Jacobs

      Either blackmail or tactical maneuver?

      The comment I'm replying to seems to be the first to mention blackmail, and indeed I agree that is the only way he could be hoping for money out of it. It is possible that he can get some quick out-of-court settlements. After all, he certainly has deep enough pockets to hire plenty of lawyers, and some of the targets might well prefer the quick exit of a cash payment. Once he gets money out of any of the targets, he may well hope for a stampede effect.

      However, I also consider it possible that it's a standard Microsoft FUD tactical maneuver. In that case, his interest in money may be minimal, but he's just hoping to slow down the competition. We already know about his holdings in Microsoft, but has he recently increased his investments (possibly indirect investments) in Amazon?

      One caveat, however. Anyone involved in Ubuntu (AKA the author of the original article) is not really qualified to talk about successful business models. It saddens me, but Ubuntu is clearly a charity based on an ineffective business model. I would even argue that Ubuntu's results have been declining over the last few years. I think I started using Ubuntu around the D release (whose name I've already forgotten), and I'd say the peak was about 2 years back, with the usability and quality declining pretty steadily since then. I really do want freedom and meaningful choice, but Ubuntu is no longer an option that I can recommend considering.

      Trying to be constructive, but I think we need some alternative economic models such as this one:

      (The pirate icon because that's the best model for the perpetrator of this patent-trolling lawsuit.)

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Ubuntu 6.06 LTS - Dapper Drake

        Saved you having to look it up.

        1. Shannon Jacobs

          Thanks, but...

          Thanks for checking, but the sad truth is I don't care enough. For a while I was hoping that Google's Chrome might be an out, but since Google started going evil, I'm sort of expecting to be forced back to Windows at some point... Oh well. At least I managed to completely miss Vista.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    The Anarchist in me would like to see him win

    Shut down teh interwebs, burn it all to the ground!

    Maybe then we'd see software patents get the respect they deserve - e.g. something along the lines of toilet paper.

  11. Anonymous Coward

    Wrong title on the article

    It should be titled "This is the way I wish the world worked."

    I'm not a fan of software patents, but they exist and are being enforced by the courts. Writing wishful thinking articles for the Reg doesn't change the way in which they're enforced or the requirements.

    The author should do some research of the success of so-called "submarine" patents. No "timely enforcement" issues were successful there.

    And the SCO comparisons are specious. Allen has already been quite specific about what he is claiming has been infringed; SCO never really got around to much more than hand waving.

    1. The Ref

      Software patents

      Some think software patents are inherently bad. I think the idea of software patents is good, but the implementation is beyond a joke. If software patents had a three year time scale then they could help with innovation. It would allow the designer time to implement an idea and profit without having it stolen, but not grant them a monopoly for (effectivly) life.

      All types of patent have the problem that broad patents on obvious and non-novel ideas get granted by anyone who pays the money to lodge the patent. A 15 year window makes sense for drugs where the regulatory approval process takes years. The intangability of software and the speed of change means software patents are a problem that can destroy true innovation


    2. stewski

      Wrong statement in the post

      It should be titled "This is the way I wish the USA worked."

      There I corrected that for you.

      Although this case is of course within the USA, posters should realise the broken patent system is certainly not how the WORLD works, you'll find many nations don't follow the silly USA model.

      Even the UK isn't that silly (yet).

  12. gimbal

    That Were an Epic Statement, Ser

    "Real businesses get paid by customers, not lawsuits"


    Has the author of the article ever considered writing a book about business ethics? Perhaps it could serve to do some genuine good, at least for some schools of thought.

    I for one welcome our comprehensively rational leaders. They're in short availability, after all.

  13. S 11
    IT Angle

    Setting Legal Precedents

    Have to agree with Simon Zerafa.

    There may be a calculus involved that forces a dynamic upon the industry or its methodologies, constraining or disrupting things. He may be proving their (ir)relevance to the market for a reason we don't understand yet. Perhaps someone is waiting to invest in something so long as the patent worries are Judged unfounded.

    Or he could be a pod-Allen trying to take over our planet.

  14. Vanir

    What is a ...

    a pop-up? in computer patent terms?

    Jeez, programmers may find they can't legally innovate anything.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    First Mover Advantage? Defendants

    The success of the defendants in their respective web businesses provide ample proof of the first mover advantage. They also show that patent protection is not required to allow those businesses to get started and to grow.

    The courts need to start using other considerations besides just validity of the patent. They need to start considering the benefit to society of letting the patents stand. The patents in question here would incur serious economic damage if allowed to stand.

    And there is one point that gets little mention along the lines of patenting ideas, and that would be the method of implementation. Most patents that I've seen rarely disclose the precise method of implementation, rather, they only discuss the claims with a flow chart to describe how they're achieved. The patent is designed to allow the patentee to sue anyone who achieves the claims no matter which method is used to do so. This is a problem that is not isolated to software.

    Such patents would be patents on an idea rather than an invention.

  16. ddogsdad

    Impossible to write any code

    It is impossible to write a computer program of ANY kind and sell it without stepping on dozens of patents. Yes Virgina the system is broken. There are those of us who own patents and all the rest that do not. This is the MAIN reason that 20% of Americans have 92% of the Net Equity. Patents are suppose to cover the intellectual property for a specific device. NOT mathematics.

  17. Oh Jesus

    I can't believe it

    Everyone seems to be hopping on the 'patent trolls are teh suxors' bandwagon. Frankly, "Anyone can think up a brilliant idea" is now officially the most ignorant thing I have ever seen on El Reg, followed closely in second place by "He spent $100m of his cash developing the ideas, and now expects payment for that work. But real businesses get paid by customers, not lawsuits, and Allen should be no different". I was unaware that the whole anti-patent troll movement had moved all the way into 'burn the intellectual property system down!' territory.

    Say I'm just some schmuck who invents some amazing new whirligig. Should I be able to license the idea to a company with the resources to produce and market it, or is the benefit of patents reserved for those who already have enough capital to produce a product for market on their own? Are we just looking to put some sort of ceiling on how much money you have in the bank before you are allowed to monetize ideas? So, Paul Allen doesn't get to enforce his IP because he has enough money already, and equity is only for the poor. Or maybe it's more of a floor, seeing as only those with the means to produce and market can afford to make anything off of their inventions.

    Do you people actually think about these things before you say them? It's one thing to attack the patents themselves, but it looks like everyone here agrees that Paul Allen shouldn't get the benefit of his patents because he has too much money already. So much for capitalism, I guess.

    1. david wilson

      @Oh Jesus

      Surely, one of the main questions really *is* what he has actually attempted to do with 'his' ideas since patenting them.

      If he's done nothing for a long period after filing, that's would seem to be either because:

      a) he couldn't think of anything to do with 'his invention'

      b) his description so broad that it doesn't actually lead to any specific invention

      c) despite having the idea first, he somehow misses the boat and gives up because someone is already copying his great novel ideas in a way he can't compete with

      In cases a or b, it doesn't seem like he should have been given a patent in the first place.

      In case a, if the invention isn't actually useful at or near the time of filing, it seems like someone trying to claim rights over speculative ideas.

      Even if the idea is actually novel and non-obvious at the time of filing, a serious extra issue should be how obvious it would have been to a practitioner of the craft at the time the idea actually became useful (ie would it have been likely to have been found by someone anyway in the course of normal events)

      In case c, even if his idea is actually novel enough not to be 'obvious to one skilled in the art', if he doesn't actually bother to do anything for ages despite an obvious infringement, that seems to be going pretty much against the spirit of patents.

      If he thinks someone is infringing, he should let them know sooner rather than later, and assuming he can defend his patent, should then come to some kind of licensing deal, before the success of the idea is known.

      If someone files a load of very broad patents about fairly obvious concepts, it could be extraordinarily hard (ie expensive) for anyone else to reliably find patents they might possibly be infringing with their own own novel ideas, let alone work out if they really are infringing a defensible patent, so they can't really be blamed for going ahead and implementing their ideas, particularly so if the 'ideas' are ones which would be relatively obvious to any number of people faced with the relevant problems.

      The slacker the patent system, and hence the greater the number of patents, the more it seems to be incumbent on a holder to actually take steps to contact infringers in a timely manner, or lose some or all of their rights.

      That's not just a matter of being fair to possible infringers, but also a matter of maximising the fairness of potential court cases - the earlier a patent defence is attempted, the easier it seems to be to work out exactly what the state of the art really was at the time of filing.

      At the very least, the more delayed an attempt to sue, the greater the onus should be on the patent holder to demonstrate that their idea really was novel and non-obvious at the time they filed for a patent.

      Heck, even in (US/UK) property law, if someone occupies land for long enough without the owner doing anything, they end up gaining rights to it, possibly based on the idea that if the owner cares so little that they can't be bothered to do anything, they don't deserve to keep exclusive rights to it.

      And that's for something that demonstrably physically exists where initial ownership was undisputed, not just for arguable claims of exclusive ownership of potentially broad ideas which may or may not have actually been novel and non-obvious at the time that claims were made.

  18. Andrew Williams

    Maybe if he wins...

    He will think, "Hmmm, Microsoft didn't license them either." Have at you Ballmer! Give me all your dollars and even your Rupees too!!"

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Gates Horns

    Tell it to Tesla

    Entire industries are build by imaginationless thugs who live to steal and defame others.


  20. Number6

    Not Over Here

    Surely what it needs is for all these targeted businesses to move out of the US, to stop making or selling their products in the US and make it clear that it's the broken US patent system that is causing it to happen that way. Then the US public (the ones who deliver votes rather than campaign dollars) might start asking hard questions of their elected representatives.

  21. drag

    Paul Allen sucks almost as much as the patent system does.

    Just goes to show how worthless patents are at actually promoting innovation.

    Here is a guy who spent millions of dollars for the express purpose of gaining patents. Yet all the money and time and effort he put into developing the patents did not yield a single unique idea that was both marketable and not independently created by somebody else.

    Those somebody else's created the ideas just as much as he did and made a shitload of money completely without patenting anything.

    Now this Paul 'Patented Loser' Allen is now colluding with the USA government to punish them for their successes and efforts by attacking them through the patent system.

    Way to lose, asshole.

  22. Ian 12

    Slight Mixed message in the first para???

    "Businesses aren't built on ideas"


    "It won because it did search better than anyone else"

    Just making the point that they did have a new idea (no idea if they tried to patent it), a different way to rank web pages, which turned out to be much better.

    I think that the whole monetizing came later, as a result of being so popular as a search engine. So, absolutely agree that an idea is nothing without the people to do something with it. Just not sure you're comments are "what makes the US patent system ... so broken".

    I think it the US system is not good but I think it is more to do with incentives to sue such as "triple damages" if the person you are suing were aware (or should have been aware) of the patent.

    Whilst the US patent system is quite different to other countries, I think it is the difference in the court process which really creates the trolls.

  23. Johan Bastiaansen
    Gates Horns

    Credit where credit is due.

    ***** And the patents? Supposedly they concern "pops up on a computer screen while the user is engaged in another activity". *****

    If he wants to take credit for that, does that mean that we, as computer users, can sue him for this nuisance?

  24. Anonymous Coward

    Broken patent system

    The patent system is fundamentally broken.

    The issue here is not "who has the best idea" its "who has the best lawyers".

    Innovation is now secondary, if you have a good idea, patent it and someone comes along and makes a competing product then you have to fight it in court.

    The problem is when the company stealing "your" idea makes more money in a day than you'll make in an entire lifetime then there's little to no hope of a good outcome in your favour.

    I really hope that the Governments of the world realise this before we stop progressing, as a lot of good people have lost everything over this issue through no fault of their own.

    AC, because if Tesla had come to an agreement with Edison he might have not died in poverty.

  25. ridgeboy
    Gates Horns

    "The value of a thing

    is what the thing will bring", which is what my professor taught me in Contracts. Paul Allen's patents are worth whatever he can convince others to pay. Your opinion as a writer for El Reg doesn't even signify the attention span of a gnat on crack.

    If you had US patents of your own, you'd be singing a completely different tune.

    Hypocrites, all of you.

    The Horned One because you know you'd love to have Paul Allen's patents for your very own.....

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    'A rose by any other name...'

    How many times can the same concept be patented by various manner of clever 'wordsmanship'? The companies being sued might be (uspto) patent holders with very recent patents, similar, but with later expiration dates... would these newer patents be invalidated or assimilated into the borg?

  27. Michael Shaw
    Thumb Up

    Patents prevent other people doing something...

    All a patent does is to prevent someone else from doing the patented thing without your permision. You may not have the right to do it, as other people may hold patents that block you. Not inforcing a patent is grounds for it becoming invalid. Thats why small companies may be able to deal with patent infringment claim against them when there is prior art by asking for a free license rather than spending the money challenging it court.

    Patents were created to stop knowledge being kept secret and being lost when the inventor died. If something is so nonobvious that no one else is likely to invent it in 20-30 years then perhaps its worth having the patent for society - but in the world of software, that seems very unlikely.

  28. Anonymous Coward

    Epic fail

    "Patents were created to stop knowledge being kept secret and being lost when the inventor died."

    Bollocks. Patents were created to provide an incentive for people with original ideas, so they could exploit their inventions for a limited period. They are an economic incentive.

    "Not inforcing a patent is grounds for it becoming invalid. "

    Bollocks again. That's trademarks - patents don't have to be asserted.

    In two sentences you've managed to demonstrate your complete and utter failure to understand IP.

  29. Ben Rosenthal

    Hey Paul......

    Try getting a reservation at Dorcia now you fucking stupid bastard!!!!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up


      I nearly choked to death on my coffee there. Thanks!

      Now if you'll excuse me I have a lunch meeting with Cliff Huxtable at the Four Seasons.

  30. W. Anderson

    Paul Allen's Patents law suit

    The software development process in the USA will suffer dramatically if Paul Allen were to succeed with his patent claims. The situation with software patents has become ridiculous, and I hope that the European Union, Asian countries, India and elsewhere - outside middle country in North America - are sensible enough to avoid this snake pit, and ban software patents outright.

    However, I somehow suspect the the US government and technology industry will fight tooth and nail to try and prevent this happening, by intimidating the world to bow to it's demands in this area. They have already lost the war, why not make everyone else miserable.

  31. James Woods


    couldn't you just develop your product in china and sell it that way without worrying about patent ?

    if not china how about another country?

    I recall the RIAA, MPAA or someone using pirated software themselves to do what else, battle piracy.

    The defense of this patent system is the same as:

    You get caught with a bag of coke your toast.

    Paris Hilton gets caught with it, it's not her bag.

    Money is power in this country and if you have it you can do whatever you want.

    The fortunate thing is that it's very well said if you give a poor guy alot of money in time he will generally be poor again. However if you take money from a rich person whom developed their wealth themselves they won't be poor for long.

    It's economics.

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