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Encyclopedia Britannica Loses Information-Retrieval Patent Ruling 95

Posted by timothy
from the rent-seeking-behavior-thwarted-for-once dept.
angry tapir writes with a snippet from Good Gear Guide: "A notorious patent case about a technology that allows people to search multimedia content may finally be coming to a close. Earlier this week, a judge ruled that two patents initially awarded to Encyclopedia Britannica are invalid. The patents were built on the infamous 5,241,671 patent first unveiled by Compton's NewMedia in 1993 at the Comdex trade show. That patent, which covered the retrieval of information from multimedia content and is now owned by Britannica, would have been relevant to the many companies selling multimedia CD-ROMs at the time."
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Encyclopedia Britannica Loses Information-Retrieval Patent Ruling

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  • by Fluffeh (1273756) on Monday August 10, 2009 @02:12AM (#29008121)
    I always wonder in these sort of over-rulings where common sense has prevailed, how it sits with the other companies who DIDN'T have the patent at the time.

    Is there now a resource that those companies can sue Britannica for possibly not ALLOWING them to conduct business as normal due to Britannica having a patent that's invalid?

    If I wanted to make a CDROM with some info on it, and these guys jumped in and stopped me due to a patent, and now I found out the patent is invalid, I would be (pretty rightly) pissed off.

    Any lawyers/patent-know-it-all's in the house?
    • Why Britannica (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Monday August 10, 2009 @03:23AM (#29008387)
      (Incidentally it's a US company despite the name). Isn't this a case where the US Government should be sued since they own the USPTO? The publishers of Brittanica shouldn't be sued because they didn't grant the patent. I think this is a really interesting idea. Companies affected by piss-poor patent granting by the USPTO should start a class action against the US Government to enforce proper patent investigation. Up till now large companies have been beneficiaries of the system more than losers, so have had no incentive to rock the boat. Small companies may have stayed quiet in case they came across a doubtfully patentable but potentially profitable idea. But once bad patents start to be invalidated, they are potentially losers, and so the balance swings towards trying to reform the system.
      • Companies affected by piss-poor patent granting by the USPTO should start a class action against the US Government to enforce proper patent investigation.

        Unlikely to happen. The companies that can afford this are mostly the ones investing in big patent portfolios...

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Jurily (900488)

        The publishers of Brittanica shouldn't be sued because they didn't grant the patent.

        Exactly. For all intents and purposes, they did have that patent, so there's nothing wrong if they enforced it.

        What we need is to prevent companies from getting questionable patents in the first place. Make a law saying a company holding a later invalidated patent will be fined 1% of their profits that year, and I promise you, this shit will stop. If you're worried about legitimate patents getting screwed, make this fine non-cumulative.

        Alternatively, get the USPTO to hire some clerks that actually know what

        • Don't try to fix broken situations by coming up with laws which only make any sense in the broken situation. That is: If there weren't a lot of patent abuse, the law you propose would make no sense. So if the law were to achieve its goal, it would make no sense. So the law is either ineffective, or makes no sense. Worst-case scenario: people forget what the law was originally intended to do, and take it for granted that it must be morally right.

          See previous well-known example in history: All "intellectual p

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Jurily (900488)

            You can fix a broken situation by starting from scratch. You can't, however, fix a broken situation with lots and lots of money invested on all sides, by starting from scratch.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Quothz (683368)

          What we need is to prevent companies from getting questionable patents in the first place. Make a law saying a company holding a later invalidated patent will be fined 1% of their profits that year, and I promise you, this shit will stop.

          Maybe I'm cynical, but I'm pretty sure that whatever percentage you set, folks'll still do it if they think it's more profitable than the fine times the chance of getting caught. Even if it's a hundred percent chance to lose all their annual profits - some companies will still do it to pick up investors, to gain market share/destroy a competitor, and such.

          • by Jurily (900488)

            I know, but it's an arbitrary number to illustrate my idea, and as such, up for debate before implementation :)

            Besides, you don't want to destroy a truly innovative company because they slipped over a detail. You want to destroy the trolls who try to patent the wheel.

        • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

          For all intents and purposes, they did have that patent, so there's nothing wrong if they enforced it.

          So, Brittannica should get a prize for trying to prevent its competitors from doing business? It's like letting someone who cheated into the Hall of Fame.

          Man, B-School grads, like today's professional athletes, have an interesting take on morality.

          • by Jurily (900488)

            So, Brittannica should get a prize for trying to prevent its competitors from doing business? It's like letting someone who cheated into the Hall of Fame.

            Retard. USPTO fucked up by granting the patent, not Britannica by using it.

            Completing your analogy, the heuristics of the DM were broken. That's not cheating by any standard I can think of.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by guruevi (827432)

          Make a law saying a company holding a later invalidated patent will be fined 1% of their profits that year, and I promise you, this shit will stop.

          No it won't. The only thing this will do is get even more companies to set up shell companies to hold their patents for them. Those companies won't be making any profit so even if you fined 50% of it you still won't be getting any of it. They already do it for questionable legal procedures (RIAA), questionable monetary flows (Cayman Islands, products sold in Cuba

          • The only thing this will do is get even more companies to set up shell companies to hold their patents for them. Those companies won't be making any profit so even if you fined 50% of it you still won't be getting any of it. They already do it for questionable legal procedures (RIAA), questionable monetary flows (Cayman Islands, products sold in Cuba) or for questionable products (Made in China) thus leaving the parent company protected from any blame or harm.

            1. Be dishonest
            2. ??????
            3. Profit!
      • Re:Why Britannica (Score:5, Insightful)

        by SailorSpork (1080153) on Monday August 10, 2009 @07:27AM (#29009197) Homepage

        Isn't this a case where the US Government should be sued since they own the USPTO?

        Brilliant, I agree! In theory, at any rate.

        Except for the fact that if a company can successfully sue the USPTO after it revokes a patent, then the USPTO will never again revoke a patent simply out of liability avoidance. Then we've made a half-broken system all-broken.

        The process needs to be fixed at the front end, and the patent office needs to be REWARDED for overturning patents, not sued, in order to encourage it to continue this behavior.

        • by naasking (94116)

          They wouldn't have a choice in revoking them based on court rulings. That's when it should be subject to suits. Where the USPTO takes initiative and revokes a patent based on an internal review, they should not be liable. Positive reinforcement as you suggest would help too.

      • by AlHunt (982887)

        >Isn't this a case where the US Government should be sued since ...

        Sovereign immunity makes that pretty difficult.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sovereign_immunity [wikipedia.org]

    • by Cantus (582758)
      A ffect.
      • In order to avoid further confusion, I propose to replace both "affect" and "effect" by "aeffect" and depend on the context to determine the meaning in each case.

        • by AndrewNeo (979708)

          Surely you mean æffect!

        • In order to avoid further confusion, We have already replaced the word "affect" with "impact". We do, however, value your contributions and hopefully one of your future ideas will produce the desired favorable impact.

          Sincerely,
          They
      • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

        by Sebilrazen (870600)
        what the hell is a "ffect?"
    • by DJRumpy (1345787)
      Why isn't it perfectly legal for these folks to create their own reverse engineered methods of doing this? If their methods are so trivial to reproduce, or so logical that everyone is doing it after simply hearing the idea, then the patent isn't worth the paper it's printed on. I know there are some specific areas where rulings have been made that makes reverse engineering perfectly legal and desirable to market competition and innovation:

      http://www.chillingeffects.org/reverse/faq.cgi#QID195 [chillingeffects.org]

      They need
    • I always wonder in these sort of over-rulings where common sense has prevailed, how it sits with the other companies who DIDN'T have the patent at the time.

      Is there now a resource that those companies can sue Britannica for possibly not ALLOWING them to conduct business as normal due to Britannica having a patent that's invalid?

      Nope - there's a presumption that any granted patent is valid until proven otherwise. So, if Britannica asserted their patent against any infringers, it wouldn't be fraudulent - they had what the USPTO had stated was a valid patent, so they were in the right, as they reasonably believed the situation to be.

      Now, as for suing the USPTO for issuing an invalid patent? Nope. They're part of the government and have sovereign immunity. Furthermore, you'd have to somehow prove that they granted the patent fraudule

  • I always wanted to know where my mandibula was.

    Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls.

  • Adios (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Locke2005 (849178) on Monday August 10, 2009 @02:14AM (#29008139)
    I feel sorry for Encyclopedia Britannica. Like many other companies that were built on the concept of monopolizing information, they no longer have a viable business model.
    • Re:Adios (Score:5, Insightful)

      by religious freak (1005821) on Monday August 10, 2009 @02:40AM (#29008219)
      Well, when you say you feel sorry for them, you're obviously being sarcastic. But I do feel sorry for them.. as sorry as you can feel for an for-profit corporation anyway. Britannica is obviously flailing around trying to maintain some kind of revenue as shown by this lawsuit, but to say they made money on "monopolizing" information is completely unwarranted.

      Did you ever read an encyclopedia pre-internet days (I'm guessing you're too young)? An encyclopedia was an enjoying read just like wikipedia is today. Literally EVERYTHING in the world was accessible to a young kid in 200-500 word chunks. Britannica did not monopolize information, they made it available to anyone that could pick up one of their books. That was their mission, and they did a damn fine job of it. Yes, they didn't keep up with technology and couldn't find their niche, and it looks like the company is going to die... but that really is sad - to have a company devoted to learning die off is never a good thing.

      BTW: getoffmylawn!
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Eric Smith (4379)
        but to say they made money on "monopolizing" information is completely unwarranted.

        Hardly! That is EXACTLY what they were trying to do with the Compton's patent.

        • Dude... read the rest of my post, please...
          • Re:Adios (Score:5, Insightful)

            by dna_(c)(tm)(r) (618003) on Monday August 10, 2009 @04:24AM (#29008625)

            You BOTH have a point.

            They used to dedicate their efforts to making information available. Then they tried to conquer the new media restricting access to information. Now they're on the brink of failing. It is the same path to failure lots of newspapers follow.

            I too spend hours reading Encyclopedia Brittanica, mostly mechanical and scientific stuff. Probably the first thing I read in English.

      • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        They want $1200 for a set of books. That is 2 years of internet access for me. Guess which one I am paying for? It seems as a company focused on learning, they did not learn themselves.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Wikipedia is much closer to "literally EVERYTHING" than Britannica, but still hugely short of such a goal (except that neither actually HAS such a goal)

        That's much better achieved by the Internet, which owing to its lack of any coherent systemisation is able to include instructions for making children's stuffed toys, video of teenagers dancing to popular music, the source code to several operating systems and so on.

        An encyclopedia, even one on the scale of Wikipedia, must have scope rules. You can't write a

      • by bloosheep (707371)
        Thank you for a good obituary for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. When it goes, its passing will be the end of an era -- and not just a passing of technology, a passing of quality. While Wikipedia is an amazing effort, it will not ever be Britannica, unless you pour a lot of money into it to hire writers and editors. They are both a luxury in the Internet media world, and the lack of them shows in the uneven writing and many factual errors Wikipedia suffers from. You can still rightfully call Wikipedia an e
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Quothz (683368)

          While Wikipedia is an amazing effort, it will not ever be Britannica, unless you pour a lot of money into it to hire writers and editors. They are both a luxury in the Internet media world, and the lack of them shows in the uneven writing and many factual errors Wikipedia suffers from.

          The error rate of Wikipedia versus Britannica is about the same [cnet.com]. While it has more errors per article, it has a lot more information per article. I would dare to guess that Wikipedia is much more accurate than newspapers. The experiment is over, and it worked.

          The belief that Wikipedia must be less accurate is purely religious zeal; print is not automatically more accurate than electrons, a small group of editors doing it all isn't better than the Wiki model, and paying for encyclopedic information doesn't

        • While Wikipedia is an amazing effort, it will not ever be Britannica

          Don't knock Wikipedia - I bet Britannica never had an entry on the various slime pits in the Masters of the Universe, um... universe [wikipedia.org]. :-)

      • Yes, I had the same experience with encyclopedia encarta.

        What?

      • Imagine a civilizational crisis. War, Famine, Disease, whatever. How will we recover without Britannica and its peers. The renaissance was sparked by the rediscovery of ancient books. If we lose technolgoy, how would we ever recover digitial records? A CD or DVD is a nearly magical device, with assumption piled on techniology atop compression algorithm, with healthy amounts of assumptions about scan rates and directions tossed in.

        Wikipedia will be, not surprisingly, off-line.

        The last print Britannica might

      • by mcgrew (92797)

        Did you ever read an encyclopedia pre-internet days?

        I read the whole 26 volume set when I was 12. Sadly, all that shit I read is as obsolete as a slide rule now.

        • Well, obviously the history isn't obsolete, for the most part - and analyzing the relationships between the facts is what really mattered. Facts will always change, but our ability to analyze and understand facts will always be valuable. Sounds like that's where you developed that ability.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 10, 2009 @02:15AM (#29008149)

    Issued in 1993, invalidated in 2009, what a deal. Valid patents only last for 20 (or sometimes 17) years, so this invalid patent turned out to choke the marketplace for almost as long as a valid one would have.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 10, 2009 @04:33AM (#29008669)

      That's the real problem with patents these days - they were designed in a time when 20 years still meant the patent was useful at the end; it was reasonable to give the discoverer/inventor a short term exclusive right in order to spur more invention and, overall, increase society's knowledge.

      Unfortunately, for computers, 20 year old patents are virtually worthless to society. Net result is that society is paying (by restricting itself) but not getting anything worthwhile at the end.

      (LZW compression, for example, is completely eclipsed by more modern standards *except* that it's part of certain file formats.)

      Compare to drug patents, where they are (generally - antibiotics perhaps excepted) still relevant and useful after the patent expires.

      (Plus, there is the occasional overly broad patent - no drug company would patent using any drug to cure a type of cancer; but people try and patent using a Computer to do Commerce.)

      • That's the real problem with patents these days - they were designed in a time when 20 years still meant the patent was useful at the end; it was reasonable to give the discoverer/inventor a short term exclusive right in order to spur more invention and, overall, increase society's knowledge.

        Unfortunately, for computers, 20 year old patents are virtually worthless to society.

        Yeah, for certain industries. The problem is the rampant anti-patent crowd on Slashdot keeps ranting about abolishing the entire patent system, or reducing the terms to 5 years or less. While that may be fine for software (only may - currently it takes almost two years just to get an application examined), it doesn't work for pharmaceuticals which have long FDA-mandated trials and expensive R&D or machines, which have much slower development cycles and more costs associated with manufacture.

        Congress co

        • Drug companies are some of the worst for patent abuse really. I've seen patents on any drug related to a certain protein for example, they also love to patent drug x + pre existing drug modifier y (such as extended release drugs).

          • Drug companies are some of the worst for patent abuse really. I've seen patents on any drug related to a certain protein for example, they also love to patent drug x + pre existing drug modifier y (such as extended release drugs).

            ... and neither of those are patent abuse. What's your point, other than that you understand neither patent law nor chemistry?

          • by IMightB (533307)

            The other thing that drug companies like doing is paying the generic producers to not produce generics

      • Compare to drug patents, where they are (generally - antibiotics perhaps excepted) still relevant and useful after the patent expires.

        Silly me, I read that as "after the patient expires", in which case the drug patent has probably proved its uselessness, no?

  • aelig (Score:4, Informative)

    by Svippy (876087) on Monday August 10, 2009 @05:17AM (#29008813) Homepage

    Am I the only one going to comment that it is spelt Encyclopaedia Britannica? While an US firm, Encyclopaedia Britannica still retains the British English spelling, as well in its look up, e.g. it prefers "colour" over "color" and so forth.

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Yes. You are the only one going to comment. The rest of us have lives.
    • by kimvette (919543)

      Encyclopaedia Britannica still retains the British English spelling, as well in its look up, e.g. it prefers "colour" over "color" and so forth.

      Yeah, isn't it a shame that a reference/educational book publisher actuallu uses correct spellings rather than the incorrect/lazy spelling we Americans have standardised on? Look at "standardised" for example: that is the technically correct (not just "accepted") spelling, and the US English spell check in my browser tagged it as misspelled. Our incorrect spelling

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by mqduck (232646)

        Please refrain from posting while drunk and irritable as you may end up fighting an argument that isn't taking place.

      • While I full-heartedly agree that British spelling is the preferred spelling (you'll want to go for 'misspelt' next time btw ;) ), I can't follow your argument that there's any relation whatsoever between the spelling and the pronunciation of a word.

        For an obvious example, look at 'to read' and 'I have read'. Or explain the difference in writing between 'to keep, kept' and 'to leap, leapt'.
    • by Dogtanian (588974)
      The Encyclopaedia Britannica *was* originally a British (more specifically, Scottish) company for 130 years, before it was taken over by Americans around the start of the 20th century.
      • by Svippy (876087)

        The Encyclopaedia Britannica *was* originally a British (more specifically, Scottish) company for 130 years, before it was taken over by Americans around the start of the 20th century.

        I hinted at that when I said "still retains its British English spelling".

        • by Dogtanian (588974)

          I hinted at that when I said "still retains its British English spelling".

          [my emphasis]

          Actually, what you said was

          still retains the British English spelling

          It's a minor difference for most purposes, but it still weakens the implication you mentioned.

    • by mcgrew (92797)

      Am I the only one going to comment that it is spelt Encyclopaedia Britannica?

      Damn, but I love pedants!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Personally, I only like the Compton Encyclopedia. Who'd have guessed that what was happening in Compton in 1993 would be so relevant now?

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