Joe Alter invented an improved technique for computer generated animation back in 2000, and was awarded US Patent 6,720,962 in 2004. According to Alter’s patent, his invention allows for “creation of a highly stable coordinate system involving guide columns in which Cartesian physical simulations may be carried out and rendered as well as deformed and rerendered if desired.” In other words, using Alter’s patented method, artists can render more realistic movement of illustrated aspects of hair, fur, feathers, “dust bunnies” and etc. According to a Pixar white paper, hair is one of the most crucial and challenging aspects of rendering human-like figures in computer animation.
Believing that his patented techniques may have been used to create some of Disney’s recent animated films, Alter contacted Stuart Langley in Disney’s corporate patent group. From an email chain provided by Alter, the two likely engaged in some conversation, but not to Alter’s satisfaction. After not receiving substantive feedback after a week, Alter provided Disney with four specific questions. Depending on the answers, Alter suggested that he could be convinced that Disney had not used his patented method. Unfortunately for all sides, the written questions appear to have gone unanswered for about three more weeks.
From the emails (part of the document embedded below), Alter’s use of quotes that don’t appear in the rest of the email chain suggest that he’s referring to a phone conversation. Reading between the lines, it sounds as if Disney representatives called Alter up, advised him their systems and Alter’s patent had “nothing in common but their goal,” but refused to discuss any specifics. This kind of response is all too common. When a company such as Disney believes that a patent owner lacks the capacity to aggressively enforce a patent, they often claim the company’s product is not even close, and insist that the patent owner essentially take their word for it.
For Alter’s part, he’s not taking Disney’s word for it, but he is still going it alone. Paperwork Alter submitted to the Central District of California on October 5 (embedded below) is being treated as a pro se complaint for patent infringement. It’s likely a step Alter didn’t want to take, and it should be unnecessary. Alter appears to have done a significant amount of research–both to obtain the patent, and to investigate Disney’s possible usage of his invention. Inventors won’t simply “walk away” because a company insists, without support, that it’s not using the invention. So if Disney doesn’t want to deal with Alter, it can now deal with the courts.