A patentee takes great risks. They deserve protection.
Those are the words of Joe Atler, inventor of certain CGI techniques (US Patent 6,720,962) and self-made champion of his own cause. After getting the proverbial ‘run-around’ from Disney executives, Alter sued back in October, without a lawyer or law firm to back him up. Alter now claims, and court records confirm, that he and Disney agreed to a settlement.
I fought this case pro-se [no attorney] because I was pissed off. It was a real learning experience, but it’s empowering to know that you can, in fact, do it.
For the intellectually curious, Alter maintains two websites explaining his technology: JoeAlter.com and LBrush. His patented invention involved defining a coordinate system around discrete objects, such as strands of hair, representing a significant improvement over the state of the art.
The principal improvements to [1999 animated film] Stuart Little’s method (if you review their patent), is that, as they even concede in their patent – there is not a coordinate system in the hair, therefor the only stable displacements that can be done to the hair is clumping [which they describe], where hairs are attracted to a bunch of central clump hairs – the are pulled either closer or pushed further from that hair, they cannot be knarled or curled or even twisted around the central hair.
In the ’962 patent, however, every hair has a coordinate system and surrounding envelope.
It is clear when you examine Disney and Pixar’s work that they are indeed creating this kind of coordinate system as there are displacements of this kind that get carried around with the interpolated hair. It’s principally what makes hair look complex enough to be real.
Alter further opens up about the process of invention, including the personal sacrifice involved:
Quite a lot of experimentation comes before a patent of this sort. I had tinkered around with hair as early as 1991 (even at ILM and for Stuart Little at Centropolis). It was an attractive problem because it was clearly needed and clearly not easy to do still. Operating a hair system to produce things like Stuart Little required quite a lot of manual work and technical intervention from programmers at every step of the way. What I aimed to do with my product was create a hair system that was simple and flexible enough that an artist could use without giving much thought to the technology and produce realistic results.
These methods were hard won, and came at great personal expense – I didn’t do them on someone’s payroll or even with a particular project in mind. There was quite a lot of stuff that in hindsight was quite new that -didn’t- end up in the patent (because I wasn’t sure).
Alter reflects on the phenomenon I refer to as myopic cynicism:
People often view the patent system with contempt because it all seems so damn picky over such little things and it’s easy for people to say “oh, I could [would] have thought of that” – the people who have this view are usually open sources. They rip off anything they can get their hands on release it to the world as though it’s some kind of altruistic gesture. People even commonly refer to patent holders as ‘trolls’.
Thing is, that stuff the opensourcers are giving away wasn’t theirs in the first place. They didn’t pay the price of all the failures that came before the success. They just pounced on someone else’s idea and wanted to feel like a big shot.
Who’s the real troll here?
Alter takes a practical view on the efficacy of the patent system, calling it “the equivalent of the IRS is in the criminal justice system.” In other words, while it may not be effective at curbing undesirable conduct, it gives the enforcer an opportunity for at least partial justice:
They didn’t bust Al Capone for money laundering, murder, or smuggling – they busted him for cheating on his taxes.
When a company gets busted for infringement, they are probably stealing quite a lot more than the claim the case hangs on.
Someone could be totally ripping my product off, with 99 features of 100 that are the same. The only ones I get to bust them with are the ones in the patent claims (that survive the test of time). It’s a very small bat.
In my view, proper e-mail discovery would have revealed many references to my product and an intentional effort to integrate those ‘features’. Getting that stuff admitted into evidence can be tricky.
Large and powerful corporations generally get what they want eventually, it is gratifying to take a reasonable chunk out of their ankles before they cream you.
So what about getting help in cases like these, at least by looking to the large, ‘top shelf’ law firms?
Not only that, but if you talk with attorneys, fighting a patent case can cost you upwards of $1M. Do you have $1M to play with? I don’t.
There are contingent fee firms out there, but they hate these kinds of cases (the damages aren’t worth the effort) – not only that but you’d have a really hard time finding one that’s never done business with Disney or Autodesk (I ran into exactly that problem with one that was interested).
So the patent system is sub-par at preventing infringement. Tell me something I don’t know, you’re thinking. What about teaching the public the how’s and why’s of your invention? The system may suffer from inherent limits. Alter explains:
When you apply for a patent on a new device, often the very language of describing what you’re doing doesn’t even exist. I can remember staring at the ceiling trying to think of words for parameters. Also with 4 year delays in issuance, [particularly with a nascent technology] it is often unclear what other people are doing and what is new so you really take a risk when you put your method out there, because you could get clobbered later by someone with a prior patent – because you’ve basically told them you’re infringing and how, not only that but you’re telling your competition how to do it.
So how did Alter do acting as his own advocate? We’re left only the speculate
I can’t discuss the settlement, however you can be pretty sure it wasn’t enough to cover the damage this thing’ll do but was enough to feel good about at least standing my ground and not being a complete puss.
For more of the back story, including the inventor’s full, unedited remarks, check out Inventor Of Patented CGI Technique Runs To Court After A Walt Disney Runaround.