Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Software patents, Kodak vs. Sun, and the tale of something that is just plain broken.
In 1997, The Eastman Kodak company purchased a series of patents from Wang Laboratories for a bargain price of $270 million. And now we are seeing the fruits of this 'investment'. There are three patents in particular which are in dispute: 5,206,951; 5,421,012; and 5,226,161. These three patents basically 'protect' ideas of how certain types of software objects interface with each other. In other words it is a patent on an idea of how virtual entities may or may not interact.

Well, as it turns out, the Java language implements something very like this. So on the basis of their purchased patents, Kodak sued Sun for copyright infringement, even though Java ( a software language) has absolutely nothing even remotely to do with photography. In any event, on October 4th a Federal Jury ruled in favor of Eastman Kodak.

Now here is the real wrinkle. Java is a free language, which Sun does not seek compensation for use. So, naturally, Kodak is seeking $1.06 billion in back royalties based on Sun's operating profit of hardware sales between January 1998 and June 2001. Their justification? "Java provides the engine for such computer equipment."

In conclusion, a somewhat shady company (Sun) is about to be looted by an even more shady company (Kodak) because of some third party patents that really should not have been issued in the fist place.

The relevant patents:
Patent 5,206,951 covers the integration of data between typed objects by mutual, direct invocation between object managers corresponding to object types.

Patent 5,421,012 covers multitasking computer system for integrating the operation of different application programs which manipulate data objects of different types.

Patent 5,226,161 covers integration of data between typed data structures by mutual direct invocation between data managers corresponding to data types.
As time goes by, it is becoming glaring obvious to me that firstly, the patent office does not even begin to understand technology and what is a novel, patentable implementation of something, and an unpatentable generic concept. Secondly, we are in desperate need for technology savvy Judges to be able to toss out this sort of case before it is heard, let alone before ruling. Finally, we need legislators who have a base inkling of how technology operates so we can even begin to address the fact that there is something very, very wrong with the current patent system.

These patents are absurd, this ruling is a joke, and together they amount to piracy in the corporate boardroom.

UPDATE: A miserable pittance, and Kodak gets away with highway robbery. From ITWrold.com:
Sun Microsystems Inc. has agreed to pay US$92 million to settle a software patent lawsuit brought against it by Eastman Kodak Co., Sun announced Thursday. The settlement comes just six days after a New York jury found Sun guilty of violating Kodak's patents, but before any damages had been awarded. Kodak had been seeking $1.06 billion in lump sum royalties in the case.
And, it is relevant to point out that

Developers and industry analysts had criticized the jury's verdict, saying that Kodak's patents covered techniques that had, in fact, been around since the 1960s.

"This is one of the things when you hit your head and say how can this possibly be valid...If Java does these things and infringes, then what doesn't," said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst with the research firm Illuminata Inc during a Monday interview.

In short, Sun settled to make this irritation go away, thereby exposing EVERYONE else in this industry regardless of prior art dating from the 1960's.

I guess all I can say is Good Game Kodak.


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