Patenting the Internet

A few minutes ago I promised myself that I’d link to the very next blog post in my RSS feed that had nothing to do with the debt ceiling. The winner is Will Wilkinson, who highly recommends a recent Planet Money program, “When Patents Attack,” about how our patent system is strangling innovation in the tech sector:

Planet Money’s programme explains everything better than I can, but the thrust of it is that it is next to impossible to offer a new technology or software-driven service without getting sued for patent infringement. For example, Spotify, an innovative, highly-praised music streaming and subscription service, became available in America just a couple weeks ago. It took until last week for [it to get sued for patent infringement by a company called PacketVideo].

….This is apparently a patent on streaming music over the internet. Naturally, you are familiar with PacketVideo’s popular music streaming service. Oh, you’re not? I guess that’s because they don’t offer one. So, Spotify is trying to make money offering a service that will make consumer’s happy. (I’m using it right now. I think it’s terrific.) PacketVideo is trying to make money doing what? Shaking down Spotify?

Actually, PacketVideo makes Twonky, so they really do have a product of their own. They also make money by licensing their technology to big industry players like Verizon and Nokia.

But how about their patent claim? Is it really a patent on the mere idea of streaming music over the internet? It’s easy to say that when you’re working up a righteous head of steam on a blog post, but I figured there had to be more to it. So I looked at the patent. And — well, take a look for yourself. Here’s their “invention”:

That really does seem to be about it. There are no specific algorithms involved and no specific implementations proposed. Basically, it appears to be a claim that covers any system in which music is compressed and encrypted by a server, shipped out over a network, and then decrypted and decompressed at a client. The patent claims seem to include pretty much any kind of server, any kind of storage device, any kind of compression, an extremely broad set of communications protocols, and pretty much any kind of remote device. If you’re streaming music this way — and honestly, there’s really no other way to do it — then PacketVideo says you’re infringing their patent.

At least, that’s how it reads to me. Neither the news stories nor the legal filing go into much detail about the precise nature of the infringement PacketVideo is claiming, and they don’t appear to have sued all the other streaming music vendors in the world, so it’s possible their claim is more specific. But my amateur reading suggests they really are claiming patent rights to the whole idea of streaming music from a server. And the fact that they waited to file suit until Spotify had entered the U.S. market suggests that their claim isn’t valid anywhere else. Only in the U.S. do we allow a patent claim this broad.

Once again, I invite experts to weigh in. Maybe I’m misreading this. But the patent claim is short and not too hard to understand, and it sure looks preposterous to me. Anyone out there care to defend this?

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