When Patents Attack!

NPR’s This American Life tackled the subject of patent trolls in this week’s show. From the transcript:

Ira Glass: Back during the rise of the dot-coms and the Internet, Jeff Kelling and a few
friends were working as programmers together at this company in Dallas, and they
decided they want to get together the way that tech geeks were doing all over the world at
the time and come up with an idea for their own Internet company to start.

Kelling: One of my business partners, Andy, his wife had just had a baby, and we
started thinking about photo-sharing. You know, Andy could share his photos of
his new baby with, you know, the grandparents that live across the state.

Now this is 1999. This is before Flickr, this is before Shutterfly. But Jeff and his friends
weren’t the first people to try to make a business out of photo sharing. There were other
companies out there trying to make a go of that. And it is not easy. It took Jeff and his
partners years, working nights, working weekends until finally in 2006, their start-up was
doing well enough that they all could quit their day jobs and do that full-time. Their
company was called FotoTime, it’s FotoTime with a “F.” Jeff says that they were living
the dream, entrepreneurship, their own business. Until:

Kelling: We got a letter in May of 2008 and it wasn’t a friendly letter. I mean, if
you take a letter from the I.R.S. that says “we’re going to audit you,” this letter
was even less friendly than that. It pretty much said, “you’re in violation of three
of the patents that our company holds. You must contact us immediately to
arrange payment and settlement or we will be taking you to court.”

Kelling: And we were wondering, you know, what is all this? I mean, this whole
thing was developed internally, it’s not like we went through the Patent Office
and stole people’s ideas. And it’s also not like we were the first to do this. And we
looked up this lawsuit online and we saw there were over 130 companies named
in this lawsuit.

All the big names were there. Yahoo, which owns Flickr, as well as Shutterfly and
Photobucket, and lots of small companies like Jeff’s as well.

The company suing Jeff was a company called FotoMedia. Jeff was FotoTime with an
“F.” This was FotoMedia with an “F.” And one thing that was odd: they weren’t actually
a competitor of Jeff’s. They didn’t have a website where you could upload or share
photos. And it wasn’t clear to Jeff what in the world he had stolen from them.

Definitely worth a listen for anybody who makes pretty much anything.

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1 Comment

  1. I’ve been meaning to post about that one. It’s definitely worth a listen to anyone interested in issues surrounding patents and open source/open hardware.

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