Patent standoff wears on
Tech giants such as Microsoft and Oracle had hoped that 2005 would be the year of patent reform.
They were ready to see the end of what they consider frivolous lawsuits and the government's granting of overly broad patents.
The political pieces seemed to be fitting together perfectly at the beginning of the year. The head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office endorsed some changes in April, and legislation was introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith, a key Texas Republican.
But that's all that happened. Smith's Patent Reform Act of 2005, announced with such fanfare half a year ago, has been stuck in a subcommittee ever since. Technology companies privately say that everything they wanted in a reform proposal, especially a limit on injunctions, has vanished from a subsequent draft of Smith's bill and that they're no longer interested in it.
In other words, nothing has changed. Microsoft will continue to spend $100 million a year to fight an average of 35 to 40 patent lawsuits at one time. And Hewlett-Packard will continue to complain about "patent trolls" who surreptitiously buy up significant patent portfolios with the intent of threatening lengthy and costly patent-infringement lawsuits.
Such lawsuits became more visible this year, thanks to a series of court decisions against Research In Motion that could imperil the company's BlackBerry service. The Supreme Court declined to consider RIM's emergency appeal, and a federal judge is now considering whether to grant an injunction.
The Supreme Court also declined to hear Microsoft's appeal of a preliminary jury verdict of more than $500 million for alleged patent infringement in Internet Explorer, clearing the way for proceedings to continue in a trial court.
But the justices did say in November that they will review a patent infringement case that MercExchange filed against eBay. A decision is expected by late June 2006.
Meanwhile, patents continued to provide a glimpse into technological developments. The secretive National Security Agency received a patent this year on a method of figuring out an Internet user's geographic location. Apple Computer filed for a patent on a laptop with a camera built into the latch between the lid and the base, suggesting that it may add such a feature to a future iBook or PowerBook.
The free-software movement also forged ahead. The European Union rejected a proposal to permit software patents, but only after patent protesters took to the streets. And one report said that the next version of the General Public License, which underlies software like Linux, may contain a clause to penalize companies that invoke software patents against free software.
Boycotting the patent system means "leaving oneself exposed for absolutely no good reason," says HP's Linux vice president.
Landslide decision is a victory for the anti-patent movement and a loss for many large companies.
Lawyers, companies and politicians all agree that the system is in desperate need of reform. But agreement ends there.
Nathan Myhrvold, now CEO of a patent-licensing firm, says there's no reason to worry about the U.S. patent system.
Proposed law could make sweeping changes in the nation's patent system. But some say it's still not enough.
Government agency patents a way to learn the geographical location of Internet users. How will the technique be used?
HP's Joe Beyers urges the formation of a consortium to combat what he sees as a patent shakedown.
In its fight against patent infringement allegations, RIM finds its popular BlackBerry service could be halted in the U.S. until 2012.
With Microsoft facing preliminary verdict of more than $500 million for alleged patent infringement, proceedings now continue before federal district judge.
As NTP and Research In Motion duke it out over a patent infringement suit, the feds weigh in as customers.
CEO Stuart Cohen talks about OSDL's efforts to head off patent claims against the community-developed operating system.
Auctioneer cheers court's decision to question ruling that OK'd a permanent injunction.
BlackBerry maker scores one as U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejects claim by NTP.
Behind the headlines