Paul Allen is no patent troll

Paul Allen is no patent troll

Summary: Paul Allen's company Interval Licensing is suing Google, Apple, and other very big names in technology 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. These patents were filed when the commercial web was still in its infancy. Here's some some historical context.

TOPICS: Google, Browser

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 For historical reference, the year 2000 is when Google came out of beta and at least a year before AOL merged with Time Warner.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.

Topics: Google, Browser

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  • Paul Allen IS a patent troll

    As well as Nathan Myhrvold, Bill Gates, and bunch of other ex-Microsofties. They are scum of the earth and should be put behind bars. End of story.
    • RE: Paul Allen is no patent troll


      I said "bunch of other ex-Microsofties" :-)

      Seriously, Allen sued everybody and their dog, and left out Microsoft. He is Microsoft proxy, attacking Microsoft's competitors. It is that obvious.

      Nathan Myhrvold and Bill Gates own world's largest patent trolling company called Intellectual Ventures.

      They buy patents on auction from failed companies and then give to their sub-companies to sue (they don't sue by themselves, it would be smoking gun). I suspect that is how Allan got those patents.

      Every Microsoft competitor is under threat when Microsoft sends it's trolls on a Jihad.

      Twice in one day!! He's quickly rivaling some of my other fans :)
      Loverock Davidson
    • Actually, Ed is correct - technically.

      @gnufreex A patent troll is a company that harvests other people's patents, typically ones that were misfiled or patents the owners can't afford to defend, and then uses this portfolio to hoover money from companies who don't do due diligence. The patent troll company doesn't actually *create* anything - they just litigate.

      Allen's company actually does research and files patents on its own inventions. That's entirely normal practice and almost any tech company does it.

      So, no, Interval Research is *not* a patent trolling company.

      That being said, there is a serious question as to whether this is a reasonable use of patents. Personally, I don't think it is. Patents weren't intented to be a means to profit on their own - they were meant to protect an actual product, which is why originally patents had to be associated with a physical implementation.

      This is why software patents as they exist (or much worse, business process patents) are a terrible idea and why most of the world hasn't bought into them.
      • RE: Paul Allen is no patent troll

        Could not say it better, thank you.
        The patent was granted in 2004.

        Mr. Allen & Co. waited 6 years never implementing the technology themselves.

        The question is - WHY?
        Solid Water
      • Patent trolls


        I think you are wrong. See my reply to LiquidLearner below. Besides, I believe the entity is Interval Licencing and not Interval Research, a difference glossed over so far. Check out my Ars Technica link in the mentioned reply.
    • RE: Paul Allen is no patent troll

      @Solid Water - GREAT points.

      Also, another patent was put in by a retired Microsoft CEO regarding the control of hurricanes. When somebody does the work, guess who will raise his hand and say "MINE!!"?

      I think all scientist-types should stay away from weather control. If for no other reason that somebody else is waiting to collect on the hard work the scientist-types actually did.
    • RE: Paul Allen is no patent troll

      @Loverock Davidson

      Either way, no one cares.

      Moving on.
    • RE: Paul Allen is no patent troll

      @gnufreex Did you ever think (umm nope) that MS and Amazon may pay to license the tech, and that was why they were not sued?
    • Message has been deleted.

    • RE: Paul Allen is no patent troll


      Scum of the earth eh?

      What do you think of the CEO's and execs of other tech giants including Intel, AMD, Apple, Cisco, Texas Instruments, and so on?

      Or is it limited to Microsoft?
  • The largest quote was from a Google employee


    Terry Winograd now works for Google.

    And no, this is not about the merits of the specific patents nor about the concept of software patents. These were fundamental patents, applied for in the earliest days of the commercial web and issued by the U.S. government. The issues you raise were already considered at great length by the patent examiners and will be litigated in the future.
    Ed Bott
    • Even more pathetic

      @Ed Bott <br><br>Not "about the merits of the specific patents"? Then what is it about? EVERY bogus patent has been considered by patent examiners. Bogus patents are litigated regularly. What exactly is your point? You are serving up a rather pathetic excuse/defense for your blog's conclusion.<br><br>Many years ago during the real estate crisis in New York, a Canadian developer by the name of Reichmann appeared to be struggling. A well respected columnist wrote a piece expressing the view that the Reichmanns were just too wealthy, had too many assets and would never go bankrupt. Guess what: The Reichmanns went under. The columnist did not know the facts, but still expressed a pretty strong opinion. Seems to me you are no different.
    • RE: Paul Allen is no patent troll

      @Ed Bott
      they were obvious patents and Terry Winograd is a sleeper M$ agent.
      I smell old buddy Ballmer's hand here!
      Linux Geek
    • RE: Paul Allen is no patent troll


      His point was that the company isn't a patent trolling company. The company itself invested in the R&D and creation of those patents. I think he's correct in that statement.

      I do hope the patents are determined to be bogus. I hate this game of courtroom economics.
    • Patent trolls

      @LiquidLearner<br><br>1. From Wikipedia (for whatever it is worth): "Patent troll is a pejorative term used for a person or company that enforces its patents against one or more alleged infringers in a manner considered unduly aggressive or opportunistic, often with no intention to manufacture or market the patented invention."<br><br>2. From an Ars Technica piece on the subject: "It's hard not to see the lawsuit as a patent troll, especially given the fact that Interval doesn't actually produce any products and the word "licensing" is right in the company's name."<br><br><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a><br><br>My point however is not to splits hairs over the precise definition of a patent troll and I do not think we have much of a disagreement here. I just felt that the blog was simply a defense of Paul Allen, with virtually no facts to back it up. I consider that highly objectionable for a blogger. Even opinion pieces should have some basis in facts.
    • Ed, The problem is

      @Ed Bott
      " is that they developed some of the key concepts " and "And no, this is not about the merits of the specific patents nor about the concept of software patents."

      But that is the point. These kind of suits patent things like breathing and air and wait for someone to make enough money to sue.

      "Sending mail electronically over the web" sounds good but the patent never says how so its just describing breathing with out say how. Yes they have a patent. However you know how stupid the government is. :-)

      So, have a valid patent..... fine.... protect it.

      Describe breathing with out the detail,,, and sue someone who develops a mini iron lung for violating your patent but be more than willing to settle for tons of cash..... that is a patent troll.

      Just a thought,

      ps, why was Microsoft not sued????? Any connection??? :-)
    • RE: Paul Allen is no patent troll

      @Linux Goof - well if that is your opinion then by God it must be reality.
    • 10 years later...

      @Ed Bott

      Sorry, coming to this one a bit late...

      Why has it taken them 10 years to file a complaint? If they knew that Google was using their technology in 1998 and the patent was approved in 2000, why didn't they sue them in 2000 / 2001?

      Even the later patents were approved over half a decade ago, more than long enough to whip off a letter to an attorney and see them in court.

      I'm beginning to wonder, if Leo Laporte isn't onto something, that maybe Allen is trying to prove what a farce the US Software Patent system is and trying to get a post-Bilski decision case to show that the software patents are meritless and a restriction on creativity.

      It certainly seems America is the odd man out, at the moment, with Europe and New Zealand both rejecting software and business process patents on principle...
  • RE: Paul Allen is no patent troll

    @Economister ... OK, sure, no problem... just do me one favor to help us all out since we're not as enlightened as you'd like us to be... Show me some examples of prior art. :)