Wealth of Ideas Blog

Everything's Bigger in Texas

It recently came to light that Texas-based MPHJ Technology Investments has sent an astounding 16,465 letters to small businesses, requesting that they pay a license fee of $1,000 per worker or face a patent infringement lawsuit. And we know this, in part, because MPHJ has now filed suit against the Federal Trade Commission.

The story begins with the thousands of letters MPHJ sent out regarding patents related to document-to-email scanning systems. MPHJ only targeted businesses with 20-100 employees, but even so, the campaign was hardly a success: Only 17 companies took licenses and paid up.

GoldieBlox and the Three Beasties

One of this holiday season's most anticipated gifts is an engineering toy set marketed to girls. The GoldieBlox building sets got a lot of attention from a promotional video that the company released on the Internet and that went viral.

And then the GoldieBlox folks got even more attention because they had used a Beastie Boys song in their video without getting permission from the two surviving members of the band.

The GoldieBlox ad uses the Beastie Boys song "Girls" - which in its original form is not exactly feminist in tone - and changes the lyrics to an ode to the power of science and engineering, sung by a group of young girls who are building a Rube Goldberg-type machine.

Top Secret!

An inventor who approached the U.S. Army with an idea for a "mysterious acoustic wave propagation machine" has been barred by the Army from even talking about the invention, much less filing a patent application on it. And that inventor, Bruce Horton, has now filed a lawsuit against the Army in a California federal court - accusing the Army of having his patent application "illegally frozen and not reviewed nor allowed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office."

The Department of Defense has the ability to declare a patent application a matter of national security and prevent the inventor from ever practicing the patented technology. But that's a rare occurrence, and usually happens with inventions related to weapons systems that the U.S. government wants to keep secret from other countries.

Should Have Stuck with Mason Jars

Trademark and trade dress disputes are nothing new in the world of alcoholic beverages. The latest alcohol-related trade dress dispute in the news is between the camps of Gentleman Jack and a legendary (but now deceased) Appalachian moonshiner named Popcorn Sutton.

Popcorn Sutton, who wrote a book called "Me and My Likker" and recorded how-to videos about moonshine production, committed suicide in 2009 as he faced a prison sentence for his moonshining activities. But he inspired another whiskey maker, who honored Sutton with a legally-produced beverage called "Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee White Whiskey." The Popcorn Sutton whiskey was originally sold in Mason jars the way Sutton himself packaged it (although the defendants claim that Sutton was known to say, "My whiskey is too good to be in a damn jar").

Google Books: Fair Use or Copyright Infringement?

Judge Denny Chin of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York has a decision to make: Is the Google Books Project transformative enough to be considered fair use, or is it just copyright infringement on a grand scale?

For those two or three of you who are unfamiliar with Google Books, it is a Google project that has seen the scanning of over 20 million books since 2004. But unless the book is in the public domain, it isn't available in its entirety - only as a snippet. Google Books offers links to sites where the book can be purchased, such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and others - as well as a "Find in a Library" link.

Computer Mouse Inventor Was Ahead of His Time - WAY Ahead

Sometimes it's possible to be a little too ahead of your time. Case in point: The patent on the first computer mouse expired in 1987 - shortly before the device became ubiquitous among computer users. Because it was patented before there was a need for it, the mouse's inventor inadvertently missed out on making a mint from his mouse. (The mouse only became commercially available in 1984, with the introduction of Apple's Macintosh PC.)

Doug Engelbart, who recently passed away at the age of 88, invented the computer mouse in the late 1960s. His mouse consisted of a wooden shell housing two metal wheels, and it was a big part of a 1968 event in San Francisco that has come to be called the "Mother of All Demos": Engelbert and his fellow researchers demonstrated several precursors of modern computing technologies, such as hypertext links, windows, desktop sharing, and of course the mouse.

To Sue a Scoundrel

Reclusive author Harper Lee, who penned To Kill a Mockingbird - her only novel - back in 1960, is in the news for the first time in years. The reason: She is suing her literary agent for copyright infringement.

More specifically, the 87-year-old Lee is suing Samuel Pinkus, the son-in-law of her longtime agent Eugene Winick, for tricking her into signing over the copyright to her famous novel back in 2007.

Lee was in an assisted-living facility at the time of the alleged trickery, recovering from a stroke. "Pinkus knew that Harper Lee was an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see," states the complaint.

The copyright was reassigned to Lee last year after she took other legal action, but she seeks to take back full ownership of the copyright and block her wayward agent from any remaining commissions.

A Murky Slate

Does a product have to exist in real life in order to infringe a trademark in real life? According to a U.S. District judge in Indiana, the answer is "Yes."

Warner Bros. Entertainment prevailed in a unique trademark infringement lawsuit in which a software company sued Warner Bros. over the use of a fictional software program featured in the blockbuster movie "The Dark Knight Rises."

Fortres Grand, a software company which has been selling its Clean Slate software since 2000, sued Warner Bros. over its use of the fictional "clean slate" software that Anne Hathaway's character Selina Kyle/Catwoman wants to use to erase her criminal record from every computer database in the world.

Copyright Infringement in the Eye of the Beholder

Two years ago, a U.S. District judge ruled that artist Richard Prince infringed photographer Patrick Cariou's copyrights on several photographs depicting Rastafarians.

Now the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has ruled that Richard Prince largely did not infringe Cariou’s copyrights with his “Canal Zone” series of paintings in at least 25 out of 30 works, because the use of the images was "transformative" enough to constitute fair use. Judge Barrington Parker's decision makes the difference clear:

New "Patent Troll Insurance" Costly, May Invite Lawsuits

You can buy insurance for many different types of business liabilities, so why not insurance to protect your company from lawsuits brought by so-called "patent trolls" or non-practicing entities (NPEs)? That kind of coverage is now available for members of a group that represents digital agencies and production companies. At first glance the insurance may look like a fine idea, but some attorneys say the coverage has its drawbacks.

First, the facts: The Society of Digital Agencies, or SoDA for short, has partnered with intellectual property insurance provider IPISC to offer intellectual property insurance that covers "IP infringement lawsuits brought against a member agency’s services, products, and/or processes, as they relate to website, mobile site, and mobile app development." That narrow range of coverage reflects the fact that many NPEs assert patents related to common Internet features and functions.