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More wonderful patent insanity

02/26/07 | by Adam | Categories: Copyright

Link: http://www.wired.com/news/culture/music/0,72785-0.html?tw=rss.index

I'm going to preface this thing with the "IANAL" disclaimer.

I wouldn't normally defend Microsoft but this latest suit against them by Alcatel-Lucent just seems wrong. The summary of the Wired story is that Microsoft violated AL's patent around MP3 encoding and has been fined $1.5 billion for it.

Now this is where it gets tricky: Microsoft has licensed their MP3 codec from the Fraunhofer Institute who are widely considered to be the MP3 compression patent holders. However, and this is the big one, the MP3 compression process was developed as a joint venture between AT&T and Fraunhofer with the agreement both would have rights to the technology. The suit won on the claim that Microsoft was violating Alcatel-Lucent's patent technology since not all required parts of the MP3 codec are covered by Fraunhofer's patents.

To me, this is a classic case of patent trolling. Microsoft did what it thought was correct: it licensed the code from the generally accepted patent holder. Alcatel-Lucent didn't even try to do much with their patent outside of the lawsuit. To quote the article:

A source close to the matter said when Lucent hit a rough patch financially after the dot-com bubble exploded, the company started looking to its patents as a means of pulling itself back into the black. Microsoft actually commenced the lawsuit that led to Thursday's verdict when it asked a judge to block Lucent's patent claims in order to protect its partners Dell and Gateway. After Alcatel bought Lucent last year, some onlookers thought the matter might end there. But Alcatel, sensing that there might be gold in those patents, decided to keep pursuing the suits. Audio is just the beginning; Alcatel-Lucent's patents for video, speech and user interface are still being contested.

Presumably Alcatel-Lucent has a strong legal leg to stand on in this case or they wouldn't have won. It seems wrong though that a company that's tried to play fair and legal should get hit like this. To quote again:

"It looks like there's a flaw in the way that MP3 technology is being licensed, and that Alcatel-Lucent should have been cut into the licensing revenue from the beginning," she said. "If this is the case, then the dispute is between Alcatel-Lucent and Fraunhofer (and other contributors to the MP3 patent), and not between Alcatel-Lucent and MP3 licensees, including Microsoft."


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