On October 19th, a Texas-based company sued Apple over US Patent 7,177,798. Assignment records indicate the ‘798 Patent is owned by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and court documents state that Dynamic Advances, LLC is the “exclusively licensee” for the ‘798 and “facilitates Rensselaer’s goal of commercializing its patented inventions to the benefit of the general public and to further Rensselaer’s mission to apply science to the common purposes of life.”
Much of Dynamic Advances’ complaint is devoted to explaining the coverage and importance of the ‘798 Patent. Independent Claim 9, also quoted in the complaint, provides:
A computer-implemented method for processing a natural language input comprising:
- receiving a natural language input;
- providing from said natural language input a plurality of language-based database objects;
- identifying a finite number of permutations of the plurality of database objects, the database objects being stored in a metadata database comprising at least one of a group of information comprising case information, keywords, information models, and database values; and
- interpreting at least one of the permutations to provide determination of a result of the natural language input.
Dynamic Advances compares this description to one of Apple’s own patent applications for an “Intelligent Automated Assistant” (presumably Siri):
The Assistant receives the input, provides a plurality of words/phrases based on that input, identifies a finite number of combinations of the words or phrases as candidate syntactic parses, and interprets at least one of the candidates as the representation of user intent. In processing the input, the Assistant refers to and uses database objects such as keywords in its vocabulary database, objects in its personal memory databases, or information in its domain or task databases.
The complaint also quotes an un-named “patent analytics service” claiming that the patent “has been cited more than 93.5% of issued United States patents.” The service is most-likely Patent Buddy, as the analytics on the’ 798 liked above, from Patent Buddy, provide the identical claim of 93.5%. The patent also boasts two highly qualified professors:
At the time they invented the claimed technology, Dr. Hsu was a Professor of Decision Sciences and Engineering Systems at Rensselaer and Dr. Boonjing was a doctoral candidate at Rensselaer. Dr. Hsu currently is a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer. Dr. Boonjing is currently a professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang in Thailand. In addition to being awarded the ’798 Patent for their joint invention, Dr. Hsu and Dr. Boonjing have co-authored a number of articles on natural language processing technology.
Dynamic Advances ownership records suggest a possible link with patent monetization firm IPNav. According to Texas state records, one of Dynamic Advances’ owners is an entity called Spangenberg Family Foundation To Benefit Children’s Education and Healthcare. The Foundation recently contributed to the Baylor Health Care System Foundation to fund a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). IPNav Chairman Erich Spangenberg is mentioned in this article referencing the donation. In addition, IPNav’s website claims that the company “has already helped a number of major educational institutions.” About a year ago, IPNav and Rutgers announced the creation of a Disruptive Innovation Fund to provide $1M to support commercialization of technology developed at the university, so a Rensselaer partnership would not necessarily be IPNav’s first deal with a university.
Rensselaer’s decision to generate revenue from the investments made in securing IP rights reflects an increasingly realistic view of IP rights generally. That is, if a university decides to invest money to obtain patents, then those patents should be deployed when it makes financial sense to do so, and should be deployed in the most efficient manner under the circumstances. Of course, litigation may, or may not, be the most efficient use of the ‘798 Patent, but Rensselaer and Dynamic Advances’ actions demonstrate that they are willing to consider litigation as an option.
Meanwhile, another upstate New York professor shared a slightly different perspective. Aija Leiponen from Cornell claims that there is a “consensus among analysts that an agreed level of maximum royalties would be beneficial for consumers and the industry as a whole.” Doing so, says Leiponen, “would shift incentives away from intellectual property creation and royalty extortion and toward product innovation and commercialization.” Leaving aside Leiponen’s characterization of royalty compensation as “extortion,” the professor is correct in his statement that an arbitrary cap on royalties would shift incentives away from intellectual property creation. The problem, however, is Leiponen’s failure to acknowledge that “product innovation and commercialization” necessarily follows intellectual property creation. That is, before a person develops and delivers a new or improved product to market, someone necessarily first conceived of it, and such conception leads to the instigation of intellectual property rights.
Dynamic Advances represents a key example, where the conception of the specific natural language processing techniques occurred at some point prior to May of 2001 (when Rensselaer applied for the ‘798 Patent), but (allegedly) wasn’t introduced by Apple until 2011. What’s more, the technology licensed by Dynamic Advances has been public knowledge since 2002. Leiponen’s view would stunt the already slow progression of converting intellectual capital into useful products by removing a key incentive to publish such knowledge in the first place. While eliminating compensation (through colorful allegories like “extortion”) might produce short-term gains for product developers, it threatens the long-term benefits provided by patents for centuries by incentivizing an ever-increasing crop of intellectual capital upon which new or improved products can be built.