January 7, 2002
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Patents and Crime

A holding company sent out lots of warning letters this week, claiming that they own a patent covering all modern metadata formats. This includes the simple RSS syndication format we (and everyone else) use to share headlines between web sites.

I've only glanced at the claims, and I'm not much of an expert on either law or metadata, but the patent is written in esoterically amateur language that seems tantamount to gibberish. I doubt if anyone knows what this patent is trying to say. Of course, if a judge somewhere happens to think it means something, the patent can be enforced for a few more years. But this seems unlikely to happen; there's a lot of prior art lying around in the early AI literature, and even more (I'm told) in the database world.

Meanwhile, the holding company can use the threat of lawsuits to make people pay fees to avoid lawsuits. The lawsuits won't succeed, but would be expensive and bothersome to defend; it's tempting to just pay the money. This is an abusive of the public trust, verging on a protection racket.