The patent headache
After five years of litigation, Google, has lost a case in which Chrome is deemed to have infringed three patents, and has been ordered to pay the patent holders twenty million dollars plus rolling license fees. If Google cannot defend itself against obscure patents, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Google has been doing a good job of pushing security in its products and services, and that includes its browser, Chrome. The browser is a common starting point for malware attacks and security products which scan for known virus signatures face an ever more challenging battle as virus writers create more and more variations to defeat this approach.
A method long used by security researchers is to run suspect code inside a virtual machine or "sandbox", software which mimics a real computer and mimics a connection to the internet. This allows the researcher to safely detect when suspect code tries to address something outside its permitted range, tries to tamper with the simulated hardware, or thinks it is initiating a dial-home over the internet to its control servers.
When Google built some of those sandbox security concepts into its Chrome browser, Alfonso Cioffi filed suit in a court in Texas claiming that the techniques used by Chrome were in breech of patent 7484247 which was filed by Cioffi and co-inventor Allen Rozman. After several hearings and appeals, the verdict found in favour of Cioffi and ordered Google to pay $20m in compensation plus ongoing royalties. Many news outlets have reported this as "Google found guilty of ripping off invention" but if you examine the disputed patents and wade through the mountains of legalese and incredibly vague technical descriptions, you are left wondering what exactly is supposed to have been invented here. For instance, in the key abstract of the patent it describes a system using two processors and two memory spaces, stating:
"The computer system is configured such that a malware program downloaded from the network and executing on the second electronic data processor is incapable of initiating access to the first memory space."
How is this anything but a rehashing of a description of any multi-processor computer or operating system implementing a sandbox? And if this was a new invention, why has there been no attempt to develop it into a working product?
Judgements like this hurt us all. Some people take the attitude that Google has deep pockets and it can afford the odd 20 million here and there, but that 20 million could have been spent on genuine security research and genuine development of secure products. Patent systems are supposed to reward inventors, but instead we have a situation where companies like Google, Microsoft, Firefox, and Apple have a disincentive to improve the security in their browsers and operating systems because every time they develop and implement state of the art enhancements, someone is likely to come along waving a patent and claiming that they invented something similar over lunch one day and demanding millions of dollars in license fees.
Unfortunately, patent disputes are not new, and not even a feature of the computer age. When Daguerre invented his Daguerrotype process, he applied for patents in both England and France, only to find that the French government, having paid Daguerre a pension for developing it, declared the process public property and free to the world. At roughly the same time, Fox Talbot invented the more successful salted paper process for photography and was able to patent the methods. His license fee for an amateur photographer to use his process was £4, which is roughly the equivalent of £500 today, whilst a professional had to pay an eye-watering £300 per year, (around £37,000 at today's rates). Talbot argued that he had spent some £5,000 over the years on photographic endeavours and needed to recoup the expense.
In 1852, The Royal Society published an open letter in The Times in which it called on Talbot to reconsider his licensing scheme because it was inhibiting the development of photography. Talbot agreed to waive the licensing for amateur usage, but still continued to take court actions against commercial usage of his process until his patent expired.
At the time, Talbot's patents must surely have inhibited the development of photography to some extent and yet, when we look at the profound impact his inventions had for the whole human race over the coming years, his rewards were very modest indeed.
28th February 2017
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.