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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