A Texas company is suing the top mp3 makers for infringing on their patent. What patent? Portable MPEG players of course. Sound absurd? It is, but that hasn’t stopped it from working in the past and it probably won’t prevent it from happening again in the future.
It wasn’t too long ago that two print-on-demand companies, Amazon.com and Lightning Source, found themselves losing a similarly ridiculous sounding lawsuit. That lawsuit was based on the infringement of a patent for printing books on demand. The patent basically just describes printing one book at a time and storing that book on a computer. Lots of people have done that prior to 1993, but Harvey Ross was the one who staked the claim and in doing so his company won $15 million dollars.
Amazon hasn’t always played the part of the hapless victim though. Back in 1999 Amazon filed an infamous lawsuit for infringing on their patent for one-click sales, Barnes and Noble got the dirty end of that one.
Patents have been screwy and contentious as far back as Eli Whitney’s cotton-gin. This new footnote in that sad history is a lawsuit that comes from Texas MP3 Technologies, they’ve gotten this patent through MPMan, which was the maker of the first commercial mp3 player. Commercial because in reality people were experimenting with making their mp3’s portable on their own before there was ever an MP3 Player on a shelf. Which raises the point— some things are just too damn obvious to deserve a patent. None of these “concepts” here are breakthroughs, none of them are systems that no one had ever considered prior to someone filing a patent. But that doesn’t stop the US Patent office from handing them out like ice cream on a hot day.
Every now and again there is a great example of how patents, trademarks, and intellectual property in general is being misused. A lot of companies are on both the receiving and giving end of this circle of pain, and if it was just a bunch of stupid corporations beating each other up it wouldn’t be so bad. But it isn’t just bullies beating up bullies. Ordinary folks are hurt by intellectual property owners all the time. Ever wonder why the laws don’t change despite it being such a liability for corporations? Because the make more than they lose, and if that is the case then the extra money has to come from somewhere. Guess where that is. Look in your pocket.