As you read here earlier today, Paul Allen's company Interval Licensing is suing some very big names in technology—including Apple, Google, Facebook, eBay, AOL, and Netflix (but not Microsoft or Amazon)—for patent infringement.
Paul Allen is no patent troll. This isn't a tiny company harassing a few big ones in hope of shaking loose some easy settlement cash in a quick cross-licensing deal. And this isn't some holding company buying up patents it can use as a club, as Allen spokesman David Postman made clear in a statement:
Interval Research was an early, ground-breaking contributor to the development of the internet economy. ... This lawsuit is necessary to protect our investment in innovation. We are not asserting patents that other companies have filed, nor are we buying patents originally assigned to someone else. These are patents developed by and for Interval.
Indeed, these patents were filed by Interval Research when the commercial web was still in its infancy. Two date back to 1996, before Google even existed and while Steve Jobs was still in exile from Apple. Interval accuses a long list of giant tech companies of infringing U.S. Patent 6,263,507, which was filed on December 5, 1996, and issued on July 17, 2001. AOL, Apple, Google, and Yahoo are accused of infringing U.S. Patent 6,034,652, which was filed on March 22, 1996, and issued March 7, 2000. According to the complaint (PDF), Google was publicly acknowledging Interval's technical and financial contributions in documents dated 1998.
The other two patents, 6,788,314 and 6,757,682, were filed in 2000 and issued in 2004. For historical reference, the year 2000 is when Google came out of beta and at least a year before AOL merged with Time Warner. It also predates both OS X and the iPod.
So how come you've never heard of Interval Research (or its successor Interval Licensing)? If its name isn't familiar, its principals should be. Allen, of course, co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates. In 1992, years after leaving Microsoft, he founded Interval Research with David Liddle, who previously headed up the development team that built the groundbreaking Xerox Star workstation, the grandaddy of modern computing. The company was filled with big brains and its backers had very deep pockets.
Interval Research was involved in the Web very early on. As the official complaint notes, "[A] Google screenshot dated September 27, 1998 entitled “About Google!” identifies Interval Research in the 'Credits' section as one of two 'Outside Collaborators' and one of four sources of 'Research Funding' for Google." (The year 1998 is significant, because that's when Google transitioned from a Stanford-hosted service to a beta commercial service. See this history at Google Blogoscoped for a refresher on just how early on that was.)
A lot of the challenge for Allen and Interval Licensing in this lawsuit is to set the right historical backdrop. The argument they're trying to make, in essence, is that they developed some of the key concepts that make up the modern-day web, which were then appropriated without compensation by the biggest names on the Internet. In that context, I was fascinated with the following snippet from a 2003 ACM interview with Terry Winograd, who spent a year at Interval in its early days. Winograd says his job was "recruiting people and starting projects" and that he "stayed on as a consultant for a few years after that." He was later a professor of computer science at Stanford and was advisor to Google co-founder Larry Page when the latter was a PhD student. Winograd worked at Xerox PARC and Action Technologies. Here's how he characterizes Interval's inability to commercialize its work:
Interval got completely sideswiped by the Web. It was started just before the Web. In fact, my first exposure to Mosaic was through a summer intern at Interval. All of a sudden all of the money and talent and everything else got sucked into the Web. It dried up the pool there, to some extent. It's hard to know what would have happened if the timing hadn't been that way. Interval was looking at devices, at things people use, and at the home, and not looking at putting commerce onto the Internet. What Interval wanted to do was noble but overly ambitious, which is to say if you create the right environment you will get creative people to come up with something as radical as what PARC came up with.
In a sense Interval was like a very good and well-conceived archaeological expedition. It just turned out that the rocks that Interval happened to look under didn't have something that big under them. There was no "next big thing," like the personal computer. I'm now seeing in the market a lot of the small things that people at Interval came up with. If it had been a little company with a small niche those things would have come out of Interval. But Paul Allen wasn't interested in those kinds of things. He wanted the big things. The process wasn't set up to spin off lots of little things. [emphasis added]
As Winograd noted, a lot of the things that Interval was working on in those early days were just beginning to appear in 2003 and are widespread today. He characterizes them as "small things," but it sounds like Allen sees them not as small but as fundamental. And he wants not just credit, but cash.