April 17, 2006

Another Side in the RIM/NTP Fight [11:00 am]

In Silicon Valley, a Man Without a Patent

A high-school dropout, Mr. Goodfellow had his light-bulb moment in 1982, when he came up with the idea of sending electronic mail messages wirelessly to a portable device — like a BlackBerry. Only back then, there was no BlackBerry; his vision centered on pagers. He eventually did get financial backing to start a wireless e-mail service in the early 1990’s, but it failed.

So, in 1998, he moved to Prague and bought a bar. While he was there, the BlackBerry did come along. Tending bar, he believed that everyone had forgotten that he had initially come up with the idea of wireless e-mail.

[...] Mr. Goodfellow, an early participant in Silicon Valley’s grass-roots computer culture, disdained the notion of protecting his ideas with patents. And Thomas J. Campana Jr., a Chicago inventor with no such qualms, patented the idea of wireless electronic mail almost a decade after Mr. Goodfellow’s original work.

Mr. Campana, who died in 2004, was a founder of NTP, and his patent push yielded a bonanza for the company, which will receive $612.5 million in a settlement reached last month in its patent infringement suit against Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry.

For legal and technology experts, the tale of Mr. Goodfellow’s pioneering work is evidence of the shortcomings of the nation’s patent system, which was created to reward individual creativity but has increasingly become a club for giant corporations and aggressive law firms.

Several legal experts suggested that Mr. Goodfellow’s work might have constituted important “prior art” — earlier public information that is relevant to a patent application — that should have been disclosed to patent examiners and the courts by both sides in the dispute.

“I think there is a potential ethics issue,” said Mark A. Lemley, a Stanford professor who specializes in patent law. “The basic key is the attorneys have the obligation to disclose everything they know about his prior artwork and make him available as a fact witness.”

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Identity and the Net [10:53 am]

A Sinister Web Entraps Victims of Cyberstalkers

Claire E. Miller, a 44-year-old publishing executive in Manhattan, recently stripped her nameplate from the tenant directory at the entrance to her Kips Bay apartment building, where she has lived for more than 11 years. She has also asked the landlord to disconnect the buzzer and is in the process of changing her phone number.

Drastic measures, all, for an otherwise cheerful and outgoing person. But Ms. Miller has been unnerved by a sudden and, since last September, steady onslaught of unsolicited and lusty phone calls, e-mail messages and even late-night visits from strange men — typically seeking delivery on dark promises made to them online by someone, somewhere, using her name.

[...] It is the online equivalent of scrawling “for a good time, call Jane Doe” on a bathroom wall, but the reach of the Internet has made such pranks — if they are only that — far more sinister. And the problem is only likely to grow, fueled by the availability of personal data online and the huge growth in social networking and dating sites, which are attracting investment from big companies.

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Salon on Net Neutrality [8:31 am]

The corporate toll on the Internet

Now — after a series of acquisitions and re-acquisitions so tangled it would take Herodotus to adequately chronicle them — AT&T is back, it’s big, and according to consumer advocates and some of the nation’s largest technology companies, AT&T wants to take over the Internet.

The critics — including Apple, Amazon, eBay, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo — point out that AT&T, along with Verizon and Comcast, its main rivals in the telecom business, will dominate the U.S. market for residential high-speed Internet service for the foreseeable future. Currently, that market is worth $20 billion, and according to the Federal Communications Commission, the major “incumbent” phone and cable companies — such as AT&T — control 98 percent of the business. Telecom industry critics say that these giants gained their power through years of deregulation and lax government oversight. Now many fear that the phone and cable firms, with their enormous market power, will hold enormous sway over what Americans do online.

Specifically, AT&T has hinted that it plans to charge Web companies a kind of toll to send data at the highest speeds down DSL lines into its subscribers’ homes. The plan would make AT&T a gatekeeper of media in your home. Under the proposal, the tens of millions of people who get their Internet service from AT&T might only be able to access heavy-bandwidth applications — such as audio, video and Internet phone service — from the companies that have paid AT&T a fee. Meanwhile, firms that don’t pay — perhaps Google, Yahoo, Skype, YouTube, Salon, or anyone else — would be forced to use a smaller and slower section of the AT&T network, what Internet pioneer Vint Cerf calls a “dirt road” on the Internet. AT&T’s idea, its critics say, would shrink the vast playground of the Internet into something resembling the corporate strip mall of cable TV.

[...] Each side predicts dire consequences if its opponents win. Jim Ciccone, AT&T’s senior executive vice president for external affairs, says that if broadband service is regulated, AT&T won’t be able to recoup its costs for building these new lines — “and then we don’t build the network.” The Web firms say that if the big broadband companies are allowed to charge content firms for access to your house, we’ll see the Internet go the way of other deregulated media — just like TV and radio, where a small band of big companies used their wealth to swallow up consumer choice. If broadband companies get their way, says Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, the Internet will one day feature nothing much more exciting than “the digital equivalent of endless episodes of ‘I Love Lucy.’”

Interesting related article cited in the comments on this one: Down to the Wire from Foreign Affairs

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