On Patent Trolls, Parallel Iron, Hadoop And Innovation

The New York Times last Sunday published an article by David Segal, “Has Patent, Will Sue: An Alert To Corporate America,” in which the owner of IPNav is exposed as an unapologetic patent troll.

As detailed in the article, IPNav uses vexatious lawsuits and thinly veiled threats to extort litigation settlements from companies that actually create products and create value. The article is excellent, and speaks for itself, but I wanted to add some color on the subject of the lawsuit referenced in the article that involves an important open source software project known as Hadoop.

IPNav has initiated roughly a dozen lawsuits on behalf of Parallel Iron against technology firms, Rackspace included, over their use of the Hadoop Distributed File System (HDFS). Essentially, Hadoop is open source software that is used to process, analyze and crunch large amounts of data on clusters of servers.  Parallel Iron alleges that Hadoop infringes on three of its patents relating to “methods and systems for a storage system.”

One thing the article did not discuss was why IPNav’s and Parallel Iron’s patent assertions are so egregious. We have talked many times about patents that should never have been granted. An equal abuse is the overbroad application of patents to technology that was never invented or even contemplated by the original patentees.

The Parallel Iron patents are a good example of this overreach. This next part is somewhat technical, but hang with me and keep reading. Parallel Iron’s patents are about hardware, and are tightly coupled to the underlying design of a storage area network. For example, Figure 5 of US Patent 7,197,662 (click image to enlarge) shows a memory section controller, including specific memory control interface and timing circuitry.

Figure 11 (click image to enlarge) shows the memory control interface, including details such as the shift register array and wiring diagram.

In contrast, Hadoop is software. It is a distributed coordination framework for multiple computers. Nothing in Hadoop deals with anything so low-level as individual memory controllers; it runs on top of a stack of software that insulates it from the differences of individual machines.

The application of the Parallel Iron patents against Hadoop is an exercise in fantasy. Unfortunately, the cost of defending ourselves is outrageously expensive. That is why companies like IPNav use patent litigation (“going thug” as it says in the New York Times article) to extort money from companies like Rackspace.

Patent cases like this are a serious threat to innovation. At Rackspace, we believe in the patent system, and we are happy to pay a fair price for software technology that we actually use. What we don’t like are shakedowns. We are not going to be pushed into settling frivolous cases filed by patent trolls whose patents are either invalid or not applicable to our products and services.

It is up to us as business owners, technologists, developers, systems administrators and consumers of technology to ramp up the fight against bogus patents and the strong-armed shakedowns from companies like IPNav, Parallel Iron and the many other patent trolls who are casting their nets for cash.

I urge you to get involved. Contact your Senators and members of Congress, especially those who are on the House and Senate Judiciary committees, and push for patent law reform. Senator John Cornyn has filed the Patent Abuse Reduction Act; Senator Chuck Schumer has filed the Patent Quality Improvement Act; and Representatives Blake Farenthold and Hakeem Jeffries have filed the Patent Litigation and Innovation Act of 2013. Last month, the White House got involved, laying out several important executive actions and seven strong legislative recommendations “to protect innovators from frivolous litigation” by patent trolls.

Members of Congress and the White House need to know this is an issue of great importance to the American economy. We need thousands of developers, small businesses and consumers to petition them to pass legislation with real teeth. If our elected officials in Washington, D.C. don’t get a strong sense that patent trolls are a serious problem to a large number of their constituents, they won’t be interested in passing patent reform legislation. Here is what Politico wrote yesterday:

There have been plenty of bills this year that would (in some way or another) try to protect businesses against tech’s number one enemy — but patent legislation isn’t exactly at top of mind for Hill leadership.

The America Invents Act took years to get through, and the anti-troll provisions in the bill as originally filed were unceremoniously put in the shredder because too few people showed up to support them, and strong special interests successfully advocated for their removal. We at Rackspace don’t want that to happen again. The issue is too important to our innovation economy.


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