Mycroft has recently been targeted by a patent troll seeking to extract a toll. I don’t often ask this, but I’d like for everyone in our community who believes that patent trolls are bad for open source to re-post, link, tweet and share this post.
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A Brief History of Patents in the United States
The Cotton Gin was patented by Eli Whitney on March 14, 1794. This easily infringed invention prolonged the economic viability of slavery in the United States and eventually drove Whitney into the arms trade. Patents haven’t improved much since.
The idea behind patents is that the inventor publicly discloses how to create an invention and in return the inventor gets a period of exclusive use. For some inventions this makes sense – the Spyder hole saw system is a great example that I’ve fallen in love with recently. It is simple, extremely useful and inventive. In the future all hole saws will use a system similar to Syder’s because it is so much better. In a decade or two other tool makers can reference the patent and duplicate the technology. In the meantime Spyder’s patent protects them from competitors and, importantly, Spyder has made the invention available in home improvement stores globally.
For other “inventions” patents are basically useless. Software, for example, is effectively math. Math isn’t patentable and software shouldn’t be either. The same is true of “do the obvious, but do it on a computer” type patents. The Supreme Court agrees.
The ability to issue useless patents has created an entire industry. There is now a whole class of “inventors” who file obvious patents with the sole purpose of suing real entrepreneurs once the technology is inevitably perfected. These “inventors” have no plans to create a product. They are simply trolls hiding under a bridge waiting for real entrepreneurs to cross. All they want is to collect a toll by gaming America’s flawed patent system.
These trolls are defined by two important traits. First off, they seldom reduce their patents to practice. That means that they don’t build a product and ship it. They also file patents that are so broad and unspecific that no one could take the patent and create the “invention”. They want the exclusivity period created by the patent without actually having to create anything that works. Their patents are a spaghetti mess of legal jargon and useless diagrams.
Voice technologies like the one that Mycroft is building can be traced back more than 50 years. In fact, Mycroft is named after a voice assistant that appeared in Robert Heinlein’s 1963 Hugo Award winning novel “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”. All of the underlying technologies are described in the novel and they have been broken out time and again over the past half-century in popular science fiction. “Hal” from 2001 a Space Odyssey, Star Trek’s “Computer”, Knight Rider’s “Kitt” – all of these are examples of how voice technology might work in the real world. They’ve also been disclosed in real-world tech like Honda’s Asimo and more than 3 decades of automotive technologies from Nuance.
Mycroft’s First Patent Troll
Which brings us back to our patent troll who is seeking a toll from Mycroft. Tod Tumey of Tumey LLP based out of Texas ( a venue famous for hosting patent trolls ) contacted us with a “Highly Confidential” letter offering to license his “client’s” “valuable” voice patents to Mycroft AI Inc. When we didn’t respond ( don’t feed the trolls! ) he filed suit in East Texas.
As a result, we’ve taken the time to develop an internal policy about how we’re going to deal with patent trolls. Here is how we’re going to handle them:
We are going to litigate every single patent suit to the fullest extent possible including appealing any adverse decisions all the way to the Supreme Court.
Our policy is also to attack bogus patents like U.S. Patent No. 9,794,348 and have them re-examined and invalidated where possible. We’ll be doing this in the context of a strong open source community that includes other troll hunters like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Open Innovation Network – both of whom have a strong interest in protecting open technology from rent-seeking trolls.
Patent trolls get paid because short-sighted companies make the decision to pay. Simply put, it is usually cheaper in the short run to pay a troll than it is to litigate. It is also cheaper to give a schoolyard bully your lunch money than it is to visit a doctor. The thing is, once you pay the bully, he’ll just come back again and again and again. Eventually, that lunch money adds up to a lot more than a doctor’s visit. In the long run the best way to deal with a bully is to punch him square in the face. You might take a beating, but if you do it every time? The bully will find easier prey.
I don’t like letting these matters go quietly. In my experience, it’s better to be aggressive and “stab, shoot and hang” them, then dissolve them in acid. Or simply nuke them from orbit, it is the only way to be sure.
I’ve posted all of Tod T. Tumey’s “confidential” correspondence and a copy of the suit below and look forward to our day in court. It looks like Tod “accidentally” filed in the wrong venue so after we’ve changed the venue ( and recovered our attorney fees from Tod for the required effort). We’ll be sure to post any future correspondence here along with any legal documents filed in the case.
I lived with a bunch of Norwegian engineers in college. As a result, I’ve always wanted to be a troll hunter. I guess I get my chance.
- Jesuskirken Trold (CC BY-SA 2.0): https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesuskirken_-_trold.jpg
- Fremontsky Troll (CC BY-SA 4.0): https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fremontsk%C3%BD_troll.jpg
CEO of Mycroft A.I., serial entrepreneur and one of the few entrepreneurs in the United States to build a gigabit fiber network from scratch. Joshua brings more than 15 years of entrepreneurial experience to the Mycroft team.