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IP, Patent

Of The Patent System, Risk Taking And ‘Not Being A Complete Puss’ — An Inventor Speaks Out

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).
(emphasis added)

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.



10 thoughts on “Of The Patent System, Risk Taking And ‘Not Being A Complete Puss’ — An Inventor Speaks Out

  1. Excellent story – thanks

    Posted by dbhalling | March 1, 2012, 8:34 am
  2. Three people who should be reviled and looked upon with disgust and their graves spat upon are the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison. All three share a common trait of stealing ideas then using the patent system to cement the theft and claim credit for other’s inventions. All three were notorious patent trolls that were more interested in working the system than inventing. The Wright Brothers stopped the US aviation industry from forming till their patents expired. Edison stole many of his ideas from Nicola Tesla and severely damaged the fledgling movie Industry.

    Posted by Ken Bingham | March 2, 2012, 5:52 pm
    • Back up your accusations with verifiable facts. In the end it’s about property rights. If the economy of this country is going to grow, those who create and build must be assured they will own what they create and cannot be deprived of those rights without due process with strong independent juries. Defaming the dead as you have is pathetic if you cannot back up your words so stand and deliver, or publish a public apology. Proof!

      “Patent troll”

      Call it what you will…patent hoarder, patent troll, non-practicing entity, shell company, etc. It all means one thing: “we’re using your invention and we’re not going to pay or stop”. This is just dissembling by large infringers to kill any inventor support system. It is purely about legalizing theft. The fact is, many of the large multinationals (or their paid assassins) who defame inventors in this way themselves make no products in the US or create any American jobs and it is their continued blatant theft which makes it impossible for the true creators to do so.

      Prior to eBay v Mercexchange, small entities had a viable chance at commercializing their inventions. If the defendant was found guilty, an injunction was most always issued. Then the inventor small entity could enjoy the exclusive use of his invention in commercializing it. Unfortunately, injunctions are often no longer available to small entity inventors because of the Supreme Court decision so we have no fair chance to compete with much larger entities who are now free to use our inventions. Essentially, large infringers now have your gun and all the bullets. Worse yet, inability to commercialize means those same small entities will not be hiring new employees to roll out their products and services. And now some of those same parties who killed injunctions for small entities and thus blocked their chance at commercializing now complain that small entity inventors are not commercializing. They created the problem and now they want to blame small entities for it. What dissembling! If you don’t like this state of affairs (your unemployment is running out), tell your Congress member. Then maybe we can get some sense back in the patent system with injunctions fully enforceable on all infringers by all inventors, large and small.

      Those wishing to help fight big business giveaways should contact us as below and join the fight as we are building a network of inventors and other stakeholders to lobby Congress to restore property rights for all patent owners -large and small.

      For the truth about trolls, please see http://truereform.piausa.org/default.html#pt.

      Posted by staff | March 3, 2012, 8:51 am
  3. Point of history ..

    You’re actually quite wrong about Edison/Tesla – and in fact they make quite an argument for the exact opposite of the point you are trying to make.

    Tesla had loads of patents, including a pretty solid one on the AC generator.

    and others like the Fluorescent Light and Wireless Power Transmission

    Edison was clearly a cutthroat – however Edison’s patents aren’t what did Tesla in. Edison was trying to protect dc power and went around doing demonstrations like electrocuting animals with AC power (he did it in congress) lobbying for it to be outlawed, and caused it to be tied up for most of its life in study panels and committee hearings. Tesla was a former employee and Edison was clearly out to ruin him.

    The patent system’s failing was not in over-protecting Edison and his patents, he did not have patents on AC power of the fluorescent light. Its failing was in not protecting Tesla and his patents.

    You can say what you want about Edison, clearly not a nice guy, but you cannot say he stole everything from Tesla. He had many many brilliant inventions on his own.

    There’s a similar story for PT Farnsworth, who had a patent on the Television. RCA kept him so tied up in court he never saw a nickel.

    Posted by joe alter | March 5, 2012, 2:01 am
  4. I concede Edison did not steal everything from Tesla but others as well. Remember the old black and white movie “A Trip to the Moon? Edison stole it and distributed in the Untied States and ruined the film maker in the process.

    Yes Farnsworth is a prime example how the patent system can be used to block the actual inventers from their inventions. Patents often hurt small inventors and are used as weapons by the big players. In fact both patents and copyrights are now routinely used to destroy upstarts and quash competition.

    Posted by Ken Bingham | March 6, 2012, 10:58 am
  5. Farnsworth actually had THE patent to end all patents. He tried to enforce it when RCA started making them, but RCA fought it for years (until he died). It’s a cautionary tale about how hard it is to enforce these things if you don’t have the cash, and back then we didn’t even have Markman hearings. It only took about 80 years to design around the CRT with flat screens..


    The Edison man in the moon thing is copyright issue, not patent. Sinatra wasn’t above stealing melodies from the French:

    I’m not understanding what you’re saying though – does the filmaker deserve protection but the Farnsoworth and Tesla don’t?

    Big business doesn’t put little ones out by suing them with patents. When a big company pounces on someone for infringement, they have a great deal of exposure to counter suits (they have more to lose if the opponent doesn’t have any money) – they’re not going to do that unless you’ve really pushed your luck and pissed them off. A stronger patent system is not the friend of big business. That said, you wanna stay away from their patents if you wanna challenge them in their markets.

    Even when you win a patent suit you have to quantify your damages, and you even have hearings about how valid those damages are, you have to prove it – you may actually win the case but lose the damages hearing. It’s not nearly as murky as personal injury suits because the issues are never a matter of life and death. If you steal the JPEG format, a city of 40,000 isn’t going to get cancer in 5 years.. runaway patent verdicts almost always get over turned.

    Posted by joe alter | March 7, 2012, 5:31 am
  6. Joe Alter is a greedy prick who is holding back the entire CG industry with his patent trolling. Relatively simple geometric algorithms should not be patentable. Let any CS undergrad think about the problem of CG Hair for a few hours and he is bound to come across the ‘962 interpolation technique completely on his own.

    Regardless of what the law is, the simple fact remains that what Joe is doing is wrong. You can’t patent 2 + 2 = 4, and even if someone did, they would be looked at like a total asshole for trying to capitalize on knowledge that many people are capable of deriving on their own. Joe is actively trying to keep other companies from releasing competing (better) products because he knows his money train has derailed. His product is outdated and has been surpassed by every other group in the world who has attempted to build a 3D hair system.

    The law might be on his side, but the entire CG industry and karma are not. How about get back to work rather than trying to make money off of a simple concept you think you invented 12 years ago?

    Posted by CG Advocate | April 2, 2012, 8:50 pm
  7. Well, to be totally honest I’m quite surprised that such idea could be patented in first place.
    Creating interconnected lines, with constrained vertices that can be moved with the mouse it’s a basic 3D operation. Also interpolating vertices or geometry is a basic operation: there is nothing that has actually been “invented” here.
    IMO this patent should be definitely nulled.

    Posted by Mikka Morgan | May 7, 2012, 5:57 am


  1. Pingback: The (Patented) Ide(a)s of March « IP Wise - March 15, 2012

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