Paul Allen: Microsoft co-founder, tech pioneer -- and patent troll?

The Microsoft co-founder is suing Apple, Google, Facebook, and others for allegedly violating his patents. Cringely has to ask: Why?

Co-founder of Microsoft, early supporter of commercial space flight, and major world philanthropist Paul Allen has already left a pretty large footprint on the world. Now it seems he's determined to leave his muddy tracks over some of the biggest names in tech.

Allen's company, Interval Licensing Corp, is suing a Who's Who of the Internet and the business world at large: Aol!, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, Yahoo, and YouTube. Their alleged crimes: violating up to four of Interval's patents on common techniques now employed by thousands of websites.

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The Wall Street Journal's Jennifer Valentino-DeVries breaks down these impressive-sounding patents one by one.

  • U.S. Patent No. 6,263,507, for "Browser for Use in Navigating a Body of Information, With Particular Application to Browsing Information Represented By Audiovisual Data." Think news aggregator (like Google News or Digg) or, really, any of the thousands of sites featuring a box with "related stories" on it (including the one you're reading right now).
  • U.S. Patent Nos. 6,034,652 & 6,788,314, both titled "Attention Manager for Occupying the Peripheral Attention of a Person in the Vicinity of a Display Device." Think stock ticker, headline feed, Twitter widget -- anything that updates continually in the periphery of a site.
  • U.S. Patent No. 6,757,682, for "Alerting Users to Items of Current Interest." Think RSS feeder, Google alerts, anything that presents content based on keywords you've selected or on your past activity, like Amazon or Netflix recommendations.

Do any of these ideas sound like brilliant one-of-a-kind brainstorms to you? Maybe they were back when the patents were originally filed (in 1996 and 2000), but they sure don't now. And in any case, the patent filings themselves are fairly generic sketches of how such techniques might work -- no secret formulas or special sauce included.

Yet Interval apparently owns these processes, and everyone else (with the notable exceptions of Amazon and Microsoft, whom Allen has yet to pursue) is going to have to pay.

Of course, most of these patents were granted back in the day when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was handing out patents for business processes the way a strip mall Santa passes out candy canes to kids. I think the USPTO may have even established a drive-through window ("would you like fries with that generic process patent, ma'm?").

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