Apple Has A Patent On The Paper Bag: How Patent Trolls Can Ruin Your Life

ErikBrown

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Apple’s Patent Of A Paper Bag

So, you’ve racked your brain and came up with a world changing idea. Not only will this idea make the world better, it’ll likely make you rich. Before you break out the champagne and throw a party, you suddenly realize: I should probably claim this idea somehow.

Welcome to the wonderful world of patents. Let me give you a quick introduction. It’s a strange realm that perates on laws that would be more appropriate in a cartoon at points. But, it’s a world you’ll soon be a part of.

Besides your wonderful idea, here are some current winners that have been awarded patents.

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US Patent# 5,443,036, Exercising Cat With Laser Pointer

You may not have known it, but every time you’ve used your laser pointer to tease Fluffy, you’ve violated a patent. Technically the person who applied for this patent could bring a lawsuit against you. Although, it might be a tough one to litigate.

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US Patent#20090188617 — Dog Nose Art

Apparently painting something on your dog’s nose and him smudging various surfaces with his snout has been patented as well. It’s not exactly clear if your dog smudging surfaces without paint on his nose is claimed just yet. So, there’s an idea for you right there.

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US Patent Application 20040161257

Claim number 9 was actually listed in the patent application above. According to this application, the filer was trying to patent the user interface for a copy, fax, or print machine…I think. They claimed that when you hit the various buttons and print outputs occurred, it was their idea. As far as I could tell that’s what they were claiming, it was very confusing.

Here’s the first claim of the above patent application. I can’t tell if this was approved or if this was ever meant to be serious, but it was a legitimate application.

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Technically, if this claim was approved it could have just about covered every computer program ever made with a print function. Keep that in mind, it’ll be an important point later. But, we’ll continue with the fun for now.

Besides the fun and games above, you’ll be happy to know that Apple patented the paper bag (shown at the beginning). Well not any paper bag, but a paper bag they designed. Although it sort of looks like any paper bag in your house. So, I don’t exactly understand how that works. But needless to say, they could technically sue anyone who makes a paper bag similar to theirs.

A man from Australia actually patented the wheel as well. Or as he calls it a “circular transportation facilitation device”. He did this despite the fact that the first origins of the wheel have been dated back to Mesopotamia in about 3500 BC according to the Smithsonian. But no one had attempted to patent it before, so it was up for grabs.

As you can imagine after reading the chaos above, the various patent systems might be ripe with misuse and abuse.

Attack Of The Patent Trolls

“They offered to drop the case against me if I just gave them $50,000. In addition to giving them cash money, sometimes to overseas bank accounts to avoid paying income tax, patent trolls typically demand that you sign a non-disclosure agreement, so you can never tell anyone what they are doing.”
— Austin Meyer, interview in Forbes

Austin Meyers is an interesting guy. The computer programmer took up flight as a hobby. He eventually got his own plane and would fly around California. As a programmer, he started playing with flight simulators as well. However, all the existing simulators frustrated him — they didn’t have his particular plane in the program.

He eventually made his own simulator called X-Plane, which he started selling on the Google Play Store. As he explains in an interview on the Jordan Harbinger Show podcast, one day he was contacted by a lawyer. This caller told Austin he would represent him in the lawsuit filed against him. Apparently, the programmer was getting sued for patent infringement.

This lawyer explained that if the case went forward, the defense could cost at least a three million dollars. As Austin recounts on the podcast, that dollar figure suddenly stopped his world in place. It would also set him on a strange voyage into the dark side of patent law.

Austin explains that in normal law, the accused is innocent into proven guilty. However in patent law, the accused must prove they didn’t violate the patent. As he did research into the brief filed, he also found something stunning.

The accuser’s patent was extremely vague (remember the print function patent application). The patent stated that when one computer spoke to another and that second computer allowed something to happen, it was their idea. The accuser was suing Austin because he sold his simulator on the Google Play Store.

Austin explained that the entity that sued him, did nothing and created nothing. It just owned patents, many of which were vague, and sued people to defend them. In a PriceWaterHouseCoopers report, they call these companies Non Practicing Entities (NPEs).

In their report, they note that 67% of all new patent infringement cases filed were by NPEs in 2013. However, only 20% of final decisions involved those same entities, which indicates most of these matters were settled out of court — the $50,000 to walk away as mentioned by Austin.

Apparently when most people are being sued by a troll, the $2–3 million price tag for defense usually forces them to give up. The Forbes article lists the settlement rate in 2017 as 87%.

A Happy Ending, Sort Of

“Instead of pretending the patent was valid and paying them money, I would do the exact opposite — overturn the patent, pay them nothing and make a documentary movie.”
— Austin Meyer, interview in Forbes

According to the interview in Forbes and the Jordan Harbinger Show, Austin didn’t just give up. He explained that if he gave in not only would he have to pay the troll, but sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). So he wouldn’t be able to warn anyone either.

He did some research and found out that the same company suing him was also suing a number of different companies at the same time for the same patent. He reached out to all those companies and they offered a shared defense, splitting the legal fees.

Austin would also make a documentary about his experience in real-time called The Patent Scam. Austin would eventually win his case, although it would cost him near $500,000, which was 10 times more than the troll asked for.

Despite the cost, Austin recommends defending yourself. He explains that when you give into one troll, more often come and attack according to his research. He also recommends the shared defense method. Usually the troll isn’t just suing you alone.

In the Forbes article, Austin points to the fact that Supreme Court also makes patent accusers sue you where you live now. At one point most patent lawsuits occurred at one small district in East Texas where judges were unreasonably favorable to accusers. He also says since his movie and defense, the out of court settlement price figures have dropped monumentally on average.

However, despite the publicity, the trolls haven’t gone away. In an article by Eff.org by Daniel Nazer, he describes a recent patent lawsuit Apple is involved in. The filer is the same company that attacked Austin. Apple is attempting to get the case dismissed because the claim is ridiculous.

However, Nazer points to the fact the case can’t be reviewed by the public. All the documents are so heavily redacted (covered by black highlighter), no one in the general public can understand what the case is about. Remember the NDA Austin described that protected the troll.

Austin also reported a recent case of a troll suing a maker of a coronavirus test using a patent purchased from Theranos during their bankruptcy.

Beware In Your Future Endeavors

You may never file a patent in your life, however, you can easily become victim of one. The current patent system is broken in many ways. As Austin explains, it usually takes the patent office 4 hours to review a patent, but it may take up to 4 years and millions of dollars to overturn an unfair one.

In Austin’s case, he only managed to overturn one claim in the patent used against him. That patent had near 100 other claims listed in it that were nearly the same as the first. Technically, the filer could have just moved on to the others and sued him forever. However, they gave up once he put up a fight.

Austin has some final personal and societal recommendations:

  • If you receive a demand letter about violating a patent you’ve never heard of before or seems very vague — ignore it and file it away.
  • A summons can’t be ignored, if you get this you must defend yourself. In that case see who else the lawyers are suing and see if you can split the defense costs with the others being sued. Patent trolls generally sue batches of people at one time.
  • The law now states you must be sued in your home district — make sure this is the case. The troll may be less likely to follow through if they aren’t in a friendly setting.
  • As a society we must petition our members of congress to end method patents. This is a patent on how to do something, as opposed on how to make something — like an iPhone or car. Remember the exercising a cat with a laser pointer patent, that’s a method patent.
  • As a society we must petition our members of congress to ban the practice of patents holders suing people for “using technology”. For instance, suing an end user for using an app store or Wi-Fi.
  • NPEs should not be allowed to exist.

I’d also highly recommend you watch Austin’s movie, The Patent Scam. Part of it he turns into comedy, because the laws are so utterly ridiculous. It’ll also piss you off when you see the human carnage caused by patent trolls. There are at least 8 business owner he interviews that have been utterly victimized by lawyers who give nothing back to society. Many of these owners can’t even tell you exactly what happened to them because they had to give up and are under NDAs.

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Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

Bucks County, PA
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