Paul Allen: MS co-founder, tech pioneer - patent troll?

The Microsoft co-founder is suing Apple, Google, Facebook and others for allegedly violating his patents. Cringely asks: Why?

Co-founder of Microsoft, early supporter of commercial space flight, and major world philanthropist Paul Allen has already left a pretty large footprint on the world. Now it seems he's determined to leave his muddy tracks over some of the biggest names in tech.

Allen's company, Interval Licensing Corp, is suing a Who's Who of the Internet and the business world at large: Aol!, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, Yahoo, and YouTube. Their alleged crimes: violating up to four of Interval's patents on common techniques now employed by thousands of websites.

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The Wall Street Journal's Jennifer Valentino-DeVries breaks down these impressive-sounding patents one by one.

* U.S. Patent No. 6,263,507, for "Browser for Use in Navigating a Body of Information, With Particular Application to Browsing Information Represented By Audiovisual Data." Think news aggregator (like Google News or Digg) or, really, any of the thousands of sites featuring a box with "related stories" on it (including the one you're reading right now).

* U.S. Patent Nos. 6,034,652 & 6,788,314, both titled "Attention Manager for Occupying the Peripheral Attention of a Person in the Vicinity of a Display Device." Think stock ticker, headline feed, Twitter widget -- anything that updates continually in the periphery of a site.

* U.S. Patent No. 6,757,682, for "Alerting Users to Items of Current Interest." Think RSS feeder, Google alerts, anything that presents content based on keywords you've selected or on your past activity, like Amazon or Netflix recommendations.

Do any of these ideas sound like brilliant one-of-a-kind brainstorms to you? Maybe they were back when the patents were originally filed (in 1996 and 2000), but they sure don't now. And in any case, the patent filings themselves are fairly generic sketches of how such techniques might work -- no secret formulas or special sauce included.

Yet Interval apparently owns these processes, and everyone else (with the notable exceptions of Amazon and Microsoft, whom Allen has yet to pursue) is going to have to pay.

Of course, most of these patents were granted back in the day when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was handing out patents for business processes the way a strip mall Santa passes out candy canes to kids. I think the USPTO may have even established a drive-through window ("would you like fries with that generic process patent, ma'm?").

At least Interval filed in the Western District of Washington and not the Eastern District of Texas, where patent trolls sprout up like mushrooms after a long spring rain and no one is turned away without at least a $100 million settlement.

The reaction across the blogosphere has been a collective "huh?"

ITworld's Steven Jay Vaughn-Nichols is scratching his head over why Allen, rich beyond any normal mortal's dreams, would bother with kind of suit:

Allen, according to Forbes, was worth 11.5-billion dollars in 2009 thanks to his Microsoft investments. He doesn't need the money, so why is he acting like a patent troll?

Patent trolls, which do nothing with patents but hold them until someone creates something real and then they try to swoop in to grab profits, have everything to gain and little to lose though by attacking big companies. Alas, this fouled-up result of the U.S. patent system works well for trolls. But, why should Allen do this?

The Seattle Times' Brier Dudley thinks Allen, who recently underwent treatments for Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, is just trying to add to his legacy.

Usually patent-licensing deals are quieter. Companies often reach settlements before any lawsuits are filed, or they make licensing deals that draw little attention.... Even if Allen loses, the lawsuit told the world that Allen funded early research into the sort of technology used by Apple, Google, Facebook and others.... In other words, the lawsuit has called out otherwise obscure work that Allen bankrolled in the dawn of the Web era.

Forbes' Quentin Hardy takes a somewhat less charitable view.

Allen is basically famous for being the guy who convinced Gates to leave Harvard.... Since then he's done a bunch of other "big picture" things that haven't made good relative to the vision. His most notable investment may be buying and selling Ticketmaster, an outfit which has managed to make every concertgoer in the United States feel ripped off. He has also built the Experience Music Project and the Sci-Fi Museum, two of the great monuments to an American adolescence.... Which makes me wonder if this isn't a claim to intellectual legitimacy as much as to payment.

What does Paul Allen want? Money? Recognition? A guest spot on "Dancing With the Stars"? Or maybe just the attention his contemporaries like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates got, but he didn't?

In any event, this is the first chapter in what's likely to be painful, drawn-out, hopelessly boring litigation that will end up making a lot of attorneys rich, but do very little for anyone else. I can't help thinking it will tarnish, not burnish, Allen's reputation.

Also: Be careful what you click on next. You may be participating in a patent violation.

Should you be able to patent a generic process? Where do you draw the line? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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Tags intellectual propertypatentlegalInterval Licensing

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Robert X. Cringely

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