A Confederacy Of Patent Dunces

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Things are about to get a whole lot more stupid.

There was a lot of online chatter when Google acquired Motorola for $12.5 billion. With Apple and Microsoft developing mobile devices (smartphones and tablets), it made perfect sense for Google to follow suit (and they struggled with their own iterations of Android devices). Others figured that the acquisition had much more to do with the patents that Motorola owned. This way, should Apple (or another brand) ever take a legal swing at them, Google could do the old Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope with those patents. We live in the day and age of patent trolls and lawsuits (just look at the billion-dollar-plus verdict Apple was awarded over Samsung last week). Even the most geek-aware struggle to understand the full force of litigation that is now taking place over technology-based patents.

Stealing is stealing.

Should a brand have a right to copy and use another brand’s intellectual property and merely shrug their shoulders if they get called on it? Absolutely not. Then again, Robert Scoble noted in an online post: the price of admission could be worth it. Samsung will pay a billion dollars in fines, but their moves made them a prime smartphone manufacturer. It cost Microsoft $8.5 billion to buy Skype. What did that get them in relative terms? Personally, I see no issue with brands defending their IP. That being said, we’re seeing more and more cases where individuals and companies have secured patents that could – in all seriousness – bring a brand to its knees.

The end of mobile marketing (before it even gets started).

My jaw hit the floor today while reading the article, Mobile patent fees a ‘tax for being on the Internet’, which was featured in the The Globe And Mail‘s law page. It turns out that if your brand sends out a text message with a Web link in it to a mobile device, you are sunk. That "technology" is a patent owned by Richard Helferich since 1997. He has several patents in and around that method of message delivery. So, guess what that means? Yup… he’s suing. "Since 2008, his company, Helferich Patent Licensing, has filed 23 suits against companies ranging from Best Buy Co. Inc. to the National Basketball Association, claiming they are infringing on his intellectual property."

But wait, it gets even crazier…

The article goes on to say that his company offers these patent infringers a one-time fee of $750,000 to settle. And, guess what has happened? Yes, about one hundred companies (like Apple, Disney and McDonalds) have happily settled. The argument is that businesses have no right to use the intellectual property of Helferich who earned it, so instead of litigation, brands are paying this as a sort of "cost of doing business." The article goes on to discuss a lawsuit (which is being led by The New York Times) to put an end to this. Yes, The New York Times (and many other brands) have stolen IP from HPL if they have ever sent a text message with a link to a website in it.


Patents and maintaining one’s intellectual property is a critical component of any democratic and capitalistic society. While patent systems were established to protect our rights and, as the article says, "views its role as vital to the growth of the U.S. economy," it’s also important for all of us – as part of the democratic process – to rise up when companies are capturing patents without providing any services or producing any products. But I’m not sure (call me a flip-flopper). If you have a unique idea and you patent it, do you have to actively use the patent or should you be allowed to leave them dormant for as long as you like?

It’s fascinating. It’s frightening.

Did you know that if you send a text message with a text link in it that your brand could be sued? I didn’t. How many other marketing processes might you be engaging in that may – in some way – be an illegal use of someone else’s intellectual property? The New York Times-led lawsuit is not going to be settled any time soon (the article says that the lawsuit will go on until the middle of next year), and we’re not even talking about appeals and the like. As always, you can imagine the many patent lawsuits that are still ongoing, and the ones that are just around the corner.

Over to you: is this stuff stupid, scary or something we all need to pay a lot more attention to?


  1. According to a quick search, U.S. Patents filed after June 8, 1995 expire 20 years from the date of filing. If a patent was “owned” in 1997, maybe it was filed prior to 1995, when the term of the patent was 17 years.
    It hurts my head to think about it.
    I agree with you Mitch, intellectual property must be protected. But maybe someone who has a patent on something common like text links has an obligation to publicize their patent so others won’t unwittingly violate it.
    Any lawyers out there?

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