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Take this System and method for restricting user access rights on the internet based on rating information stored in a relational database

There are hundreds of thousands of them out there.

So basically you can't program anything really without breaching one of thousands of software patents.

If your program succeeds you will be sued by someone!

Does this happen all the time and people get silenced?

Do trendy startups get hit by things like this? Surely all major web properties would have been hit by the example above by AT&T?

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closed as not a real question by pdr, Walter, MainMa, Robert Harvey, World Engineer Nov 9 '12 at 12:07

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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Pfft, Americans and their patents... That said, what exactly is your question? –  Yannis Rizos Nov 8 '12 at 12:01
    
Should possibly move this to http://patents.stackexchange.com/ –  Scott Whitlock Nov 8 '12 at 12:04
    
@ScottWhitlock Hm, the question, as currently phrased, is not really a good fit for Stack Exchange in general. –  Yannis Rizos Nov 8 '12 at 12:06
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It's not possible to do anything without the threat of legal action. Posting on this forum opens you to the threat of legal action (examples). You could ask how common these legal actions are, and whether larger companies are more often targeted than startups. –  MarkJ Nov 8 '12 at 12:10
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AskPatents has a very well defined scope, it's not intended for general discussion on patents. See their FAQ: patents.stackexchange.com/faq –  Yannis Rizos Nov 8 '12 at 12:16

3 Answers 3

First, the abstract, let alone the title of a patent, is not sufficient to judge what it covers. You have to look at the individual claims (which are written in hard-to-comprehend legalese). If what your code does is not exactly covered by the claims, the patent is not relevant to you.

Second, patent holders aren't generally out to crush anyone. Many are doing little with the patents they hold. The others mostly just want money. Which means you won't get sued until you have money (which also means you can afford the lawyers to defend), and then probably not for more than you can afford to pay (because everyone loves an ongoing revenue stream). Of course, if you're a newcomer that's seriously threatening an incumbent, the case might be different.

Overall, it's not as bad as you seem to think, but still quite harmful to the industry in general, and successful startups in particular.

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+1 It isn't unknown for an incumbent to try to use patents to crush a newcomer, not just to get a revenue stream. E.g. Apple iPad vs Samsung Galaxy. –  MarkJ Nov 9 '12 at 12:27

I'm certainly no lawyer, but at least in the USA, you can have legal action thrown at you for just about anything. Granted, we have laws to protect from frivolous lawsuits. Like if you try to sue someone for being tall, well, you will get laughed out of court and possible sued yourself.

However, if a big company with deep pockets decided you are infringing on their patents, or hell, even competing with them in a way they don't like, they can and often do try to sue you. The sad part is that they don't even have to win. A giant company like Apple or Microsoft could literally hold you up in court until you couldn't afford to fight any more. Then typically what happens is that the two parties settle.

Now on the flip side, giant companies have to be careful doing that. If they bully too much, they will be seen as a bully and people will start rooting for the "underdog". But my personal opinion is that giant companies actually put their legal teams on their PnL as a "profit center" in some cases. Especially companies that like to patent troll.

It's a huge cancer in innovation what some of these companies do. I remember reading in Brian Bagnall's Commodore book of how IBM tried to sue Commodore back in the 80's because Commodore violated their patent of "copy n paste".

I think the worst examples are people / companies like Paul Allen who buy up companies purely for their patents. Then start suing. Anyone remember SCO? lol

But then again, you have companies that buy patents so that THEY won't get sued. It's a huge mess and we all have to play in it.

But don't let that discourage you from innovating. In fact, let it encourage you. Because if Microsoft or Apple or Google come after you, you are probably on to something big. :-D

Anyway, just my $0.02.

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Some practical consideration work in your favor. Small companies don't have enough money to make good targets, big companies can mount a big defense, so they aren't good target either. I suspect that it is so costly to litigate that unless a big company is gunning to kill one of their smaller competitors, many of the existing patents have their main use to promote cross licensing and as a defensive measure.

Having said this, I worked for a company that fought off a suit from a competitor that was ten times its size for IP that was very closely related to the core business done by both companies. Lawyers collected years of engineering records, source code from past software releases, deposed most of the developers who had worked for the company for the decade previous.

The company I worked for prevailed, and was able to stay in business. They didn't get any money, but their court costs were covered by the attacker and it led to some helpful cross licencing to prevent future suits. Some lessons learned from the process included the need for better engineering documentation, a renewed push to use patents for protection and to keep our work as confidential as possible.

Other lessons related to the company having professional relationships with employees. The trial phase depended on testimony from a developer who the company treated pretty badly as he was exited. I would say that there was a lesson that the company needs to have oversight of managers to insure that they never belittle the people who work for them. It may have also contributed to a sense of being indispensable in one of the other developers who helped defend. That person later became pretty hard to manage (he was shocked and pretty vocal at the unfairness of receiving two reprimands, and later resigned, maybe as a third loomed on the horizon).

Another effect you could consider as well is that the company stock got a boost when the litigation ended. Employees who had options that expired before that point lost out. The company had a bonus program, but the litigation costs were a head wind for the company that prevented payment or reduced the amount of the bonus for several years.

For me, a benefit that grew out of the problems was that the company gave classes in generating ideas, what can be protected by patent, copyright, or trademark, what record keeping is needed for IP, and a chance to get to know a really great patent attorney. The company put a lot into filling the patent pipeline with a several new disclosures and applications each year that turned into a harvest of several granted patents per year many years later. For engineers with Masters and PhDs, it was a boon to their job security and pay if they worked on patents.

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