For some, it was a glorious piece of news. After all, the little guy triumphed, stuck it to the man and walked away with a small fortune.
Two weeks ago a US company few people had heard of, called VirnetX, was awarded $625.6m by a court in East Texas, when a jury found that Apple had infringed four of its patents. VirnetX has a staff of 14 people, while Apple posts a quarterly net profit of several billion – but the predominant reaction online was one of disgust at a broken system and amazement that a jury could return such a verdict.
VirnetX was slammed as a "patent troll", a company that markets no products or services and makes its money entirely through licensing patents and suing anyone that infringes them. VirnetX has previous in this regard, with a $200m judgment against Microsoft back in 2010; in the aftermath of the verdict, it stood accused of stifling innovation by abusing a system intended to reward innovators. Kendall Larsen, VirnetX CEO and President, said, simply: "We are extremely pleased with the jury verdict.... The jury agreed once again that Apple has been using the technology developed by our inventors." Apple, meanwhile, have called it a mistrial.
Gadgets and tech news in pictures
Gadgets and tech news in pictures
1/26 ‘The Drone-ovic’
In time for Wimbledon, Virgin Active is trialling ‘The Drone-ovic’ – a drone that drops tennis balls from above to achieve that perfect serve at its Northwood club tennis courts
CPG Photography Ltd
2/26 Voice assistants are coming for your home
A year from now, Google, Amazon and Apple might be listening in on your living room. And you’ll be glad of it. All three of those companies are working on or have announced voice assistants that sit in people’s houses and talk to them. The boxes – which function as speakers, and look like them too – are meant do everything from asking questions to operating various parts of peoples’ houses
3/26 North Korean Facebook set up and immediately hacked
An imitation of Facebook apparently set up for North Koreans has already been hacked and sent offline, just days after it was discovered. Internet company Dyn Research found the site – hosted in North Korea and created to look almost exactly like Facebook – and discovered that it was accessible for anyone in the world. But days later a college student got access to the site because it had been secured with just a default password
4/26 Bring broken smartphone back to life - as a robot
Do you have an old broken smartphone lying around the house somewhere? Then why not turn it into a robot? That's exactly what YouTuber Mehdi Sadaghdar did in a recent video, after his efforts to bring a destroyed phone back to life disastrously failed. Using the phone's vibrator, a coin battery, a simple switch, a few wires and the bristly part of a toothbrush, he managed to make a simple little toy that can skitter around a tabletop as long as the battery last
5/26 Detachable plane cabin
A Ukrainian inventor has proposed building airliners with detachable passenger cabins that could separate from the rest of the plane and parachute safely to the ground in the event of an emergency
6/26 FA announces it will host the Emirates FA Cup video game tournament
The FA has announced that for the first time ever it will host the inaugural Emirates FA Cup gaming tournament, with video game fans from across the world invited to compete for glory at Wembley Stadium connected by EE. Early rounds will take place in iconic locations in the stadium such as The Royal Box, the changing rooms and the players’ tunnel, with the two finalists set to play the virtual final using Wembley Stadium’s 82 foot screens as they sit in the centre circle. Gamers of varying ability will descend upon Wembley Stadium as the home of football transforms into an epic gaming colosseum set to turn heads and sweat palms in equal measure
The FA via Getty Images
7/26 Oculus Rift release date
Oculus has said that it is about to open pre-orders for its Rift virtual reality headset. Some have claimed that the hardware will be the device that will bring virtual reality into the mainstream. And it will start being available from 6 January 2016, the company has said. The company hasn’t said when the headsets will actually start arriving, or how much they will cost. It isn’t clear whether the company intends to announce more details before pre-orders begin
8/26 iPhone stock apps can be removed by just putting them into special folder
A new trick shows a quick way of getting rid of the stock apps that might be cluttering up your iPhone screen — at least for a while. The iPhone comes with a range of apps that are stuck on the phone, and can't be deleted like others. While some are key to the phone — like the Phone app itself — others like Stocks are less well-regarded. But the new trick shows how you can hide those unused stock apps with just a quick trick using some folders
9/26 CES 2016: Four big things set to be revealed
The CES 2016 gadget show is about to kick off, and nearly the entire technology industry has descended on Las Vegas to try and show off the future. Every year, companies and technologists attempt to show that they have seen what’s coming and that they will be there to offer it. Every year, a lot of people get it wrong. This year’s expectations are as big as ever. Every year, CES unofficially gets a big theme that everything’s supposed to be about — this year that’s virtual reality. There is also future for cars, smart home and wearables
10/26 Terrorists could use drones to attack planes and spread propaganda
A government counter-terrorism adviser has warned that terrorists could use commercially available drones to attack passenger planes. Detective Chief Inspector Colin Smith, a security expert and adviser to the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology, warned that small quadcopter drones could easily be used by terrorists for attacks and propaganda purposes
11/26 Goggle-Eyed Lemurs watch TV as part of their reintroduction to the wild
Port Lympne Reserve in Kent, UK, has installed Sony Bravia 4K TVs into its lemur and langur enclosures to show life-like footage to its primates as part of its ‘Back to the Wild’ programme. The charity will trial TV watching on Sony’s 4K TVs as part of this programme in a bid to make langurs more familiar with the new environment
Mikael Buck / Sony
Uber has added a lift-sharing feature to its app in London, allowing people to share their taxi with a stranger in return for a reduced fair. Users will be given 25 per cent off their journey if they say they will let up to two other passengers share their car. Drivers will then receive a message telling them that they’ll be picking up more than one fare, and can plan their route accordingly. London is the second European country to get the feature, after Paris. It was first launched in San Francisco and now most people who use the app do so with the feature
13/26 Attempt to build world’s biggest Rubik’s cube ends in disaster
An attempt to build the world’s biggest Rubik’s cube ended in disaster when the puzzle exploded as it was turned for the first time. One of the masterminds behind Coren Puzzle, a YouTube channel dedicated to custom puzzles, live-streamed the final assembly of the 22x22 cube. The video was the culmination of seven months of construction, which included a month of deliberation on how to build the mechanism at the centre of the device
14/26 New battery chip could let phones charge in minutes
The maker of a new chip claims that it could reduce the charging times of phones to a few minutes, and could prevent dangerous explosions. The tiny chip could be embedded into batteries of all sizes and monitor how healthy and charged they are. That in turn would mean that the batteries would become much safer and quicker to charge, according to the scientist that developed it. Unhealthy lithium-ion batteries can be at risk of exploding or catching fire, as well as gradually losing their capacity so that they run out more quickly. Those problems may become even more important as people move towards electric cars or other vehicles
15/26 Facebook on iPhone gets new fast-loading Instant Articles
If you've noticed articles on Facebook loading a little quicker recently, that's because the new Instant Articles have been launched to all iPhone users. Instant Articles load up to 10 times quicker than a regular article, and have some enriched features - such as unobtrusive autoplay videos, zoomable high-definition images and interactive maps
16/26 Halo 5 patch
Gamers looking forward to playing Halo 5: Guardians on its release on 27 October 2015 will have to wait to download a 9GB day one patch before the game's multiplayer mode can run properly. Those without the patch won't even be able to play multiplayer at all until it's downloaded, in yet another case of a blockbuster game needing a patch on the day of launch
17/26 New HTC Desire 626 handset launch
HTC has launched its latest Desire 626 handset with the Sense 7 software which automatically detects whether you’re at work, at home or on-the-go and alters its theme to suit your location. This advanced technology intelligently analyses your favourite photos to modify the look and feel of your apps, allowing you to modify the colour scheme and backgrounds – the ultimate in personalisation
18/26 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
19/26 Customers wait in line at the Apple Store in Paris to get their hands on the iPhone 6s
Several hundred camped outside the London store in Covent Garden. The 6s will have new features like a vastly improved camera and a pressure-sensitive “3D Touch” display
20/26 Bloodhound SSC: The most powerful ever made is shown off to the public
The car is displayed at Downing Street, when the team visited David Cameron to demonstrate the project
21/26 Lunar eclipse threatens Nasa technology
Artist's rendering of Nasa's LRO spacecraft, which will have to withstand a rapid drop in temperature during an upcoming lunar eclipse that could lead to it shutting down
22/26 Mobile phone bills could rocket up after Ofcom announced that the fees it charges to phone operators will be trebled
The regulator will now charge far more to phone companies for using the mobile spectrum — and though it says that fee will not be passed on to customers, experts have said that prices are likely to go up
23/26 New iPhone 6s rose gold
Apple has released a bright pink new iPhone 6s — likely the only way that you’ll be able to tell that someone has the new handset. The company released the new phone with much fanfare, but almost all of the changes — a new camera and pressure-sensitive display — were on the inside. The only new noticeable addition to the phone’s look is the very pink rose gold colour, and a tiny “S” on the back. The new handsets will be released on September 25
24/26 iPad Pro
Apple has launched a huge new iPad, which it hopes can bring the tablet to offices and designers. But it unveiled it with an Apple-designed stylus — an idea that was famously mocked by late Apple founder Steve Jobs
25/26 Apple TV
Apple has introduced the new Apple TV
26/26 Apple Pencil
Apple has introduced the new Apple Pencil
The IT industry suffers disproportionately from patent trolling, and many – including President Obama – have called for change. It's not just big corporations that suffer; indeed, by amassing collections of their own patents, larger firms have managed to partially insulate themselves with a kind of "mutual deterrent" arrangement. Smaller app developers regularly find themselves violating patents that they had no idea even existed, because to fall foul of the system you don't have to be shown to have copied, merely infringed.
Patent offices have been criticised for exacerbating the problem by issuing too many patents with too broad a scope – thousands of them, all with overlapping remits. For example, a patent exists for a "system and method for viewing content over the internet wherein a user accesses a service-provider server to view a character icon", which could conceivably apply to every online video game ever made. Instead of innovating, the worst trolls appear to describe vague, computer-aided solutions to problems and then sue anyone who unwittingly puts those solutions into practice.
The huge award against Apple, however, might be one of the last big paydays for patent trolls. The fightback began in earnest in 2014, when a decision of the US Supreme Court in the case of Alice Corp vs CLS Bank found in favour of CLS, which stood accused of infringing Alice's software patents; this decision appears to have had a marked effect on patent litigation.
According to Steven Callahan, an IP lawyer based in Texas, there's been a 78 per cent win rate for defendants challenging the validity of patents by citing the "Alice" case.
"The Supreme Court has taken a big chunk out of what can get patented, albeit in a way that's still to be resolved," says Simon Davies, chair of the Computer Technology Committee for the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys. "The Supreme Court doesn't offer clear and specific guidance; that's for the lower courts to do."
Given this, why did the East Texas jury find Apple guilty of all charges? If your patent is being infringed across the US, in theory you have a choice of where you decide to sue, and certain courts are seen as more favourable to the patentee.
It's telling that in the first half of last year, nearly half of all patent cases in the US were filed in East Texas. It's called forum shopping, and East Texas is a prime shopping destination. "The overall trend suggests that judges in the Eastern District of Texas are applying [the Alice case] in a way that's far more favourable to patent owners," says Daniel Nazer, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Another theory is that jurors in this part of the world are more likely to line up behind David in any David vs Goliath contest; in other words, in the case of Apple vs VirnetX, Apple wouldn't stand a chance. Little wonder that many patent trolls head straight to Texas.
Such is the strength of feeling over patent trolls, it's easy to assume that anyone trying to defend their IT patent is the bad guy. "But the definition of what constitutes a troll is difficult," says Davies.
"For example, universities will create intellectual property and license it using various mechanisms. That's one of the ways they make money from their research. And there are examples of companies that have many patents, but for some reason their regular business hasn't necessarily prospered."
Some put VirnetX in this category, while bemoaning the fate of "normal" companies who find themselves disadvantaged as legal attitudes to IT patents start to shift; they spent money acquiring them, but a shadow is now cast over their value.
The effect on us, the end consumer, is difficult to measure. Huge sums of money continue to change hands between companies fighting cases, and it's unclear how much of that gets passed on to us in terms of price hikes. But the idea that patent cases damage technological innovation is what makes the subject such a cause célèbre for organisations such as the EFF.
And change is definitely under way – albeit slowly. In Virginia, for example, a new Patent Troll Unit is seeking to penalise companies making unjust patent claims. "There are also legislative measures being taken, such as how you calculate damages," says Davies. "If you have a patent that covers one tiny aspect of a complex product, should you be able to stop them marketing that product?
"Also, the owner of the patent listed on the register is often not the ultimate owner; it might be a company owned by someone else owned by someone else – and so there's the question of full disclosure of the chain of ownership."
In other words, a supposedly cut-and-dried case of the big guy versus the little guy might not be quite so simple after all.
- More about:
- US Supreme Court
- Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys
- Simon Davies
- Rhodri Marsden
- Steven Callahan
- Kendall Larsen
- Electronic Frontier Foundation
- Daniel Nazer
- Computer Technology Committee