We’ve been fighting abuses of the patent system for years. Many of the worst abuses we see are committed by software patent owners who make money suing people instead of building anything. These are patent owners we call patent trolls. They demand money from people who use technology to perform ordinary activities. And they’re able to do that because they’re able to get patents on basic ideas that aren’t inventions, like running a scavenger hunt and teaching foreign languages.
Efforts at reforming this broken system got a big boost in 2014, when the Supreme Court decided the Alice v. CLS Bank case. In a unanimous decision, the high court held that you can’t get a patent on an abstract idea just by adding generic computer language. Now, courts are supposed to dismiss lawsuits based on abstract patents as early as possible.
We need an efficient way to throw out bad software patents because patent litigation is so outrageously expensive. Small businesses simply can’t afford the millions of dollars it costs to go through a full patent trial. And thanks to Alice, they haven’t had to: since the decision came down, U.S. courts have thrown out bad patents in hundreds of cases.
Our Saved by Alice project tells the stories of these businesses and the people behind them. One is the story of Ruth Taylor, a photographer who ran a website called Bytephoto.com. Bytephoto hosted forums for a passionate community of photographers, and also ran weekly photo competitions where users voted on the photos they liked best.
Today, we’re publishing a short video in which Ruth tells her story about how a company called Garfum.com, claiming that her online photo contests infringed its patent, demanded she pay $50,000 or face a lawsuit for patent infringement.
“I wasn’t about to hand over $50,000, because I didn’t have $50,000,” Ruth said in our interview. “And even if I did, I still wouldn’t have handed it over.”
Instead, Ruth called EFF. We were able to take her case pro bono and prepare a strong defense, arguing that the ridiculous Garfum.com patent never should have been issued in the first place. Garfum’s patent simply takes the well-known idea of a competition by popular vote and applies it to networked computers. This is exactly the type of patent Alice prohibits. After our brief was filed, and Garfum was scheduled to meet us in court, they dropped their lawsuit.
We were able to take and win Ruth’s case because of the Alice decision. Faced with a hearing in which they’d have to justify their patent, Garfum backed down from its bullying behavior. Large patent holders like IBM and Qualcomm have been pushing Congress to weaken one of the few safeguards we have against bad patents, and earlier this year, U.S. Senators began considering a draft proposal that would have thrown out Alice altogether.
When we asked Ruth what it would mean for small businesses if the Alice decision was overturned. “They would be sued, and probably go under,” she said. “To me, a patent was always an amazing invention, that would help people—not something that’s used to extort money from people.”
We hope you’ll take time to listen to Ruth’s story, and understand why we can’t let Congress chip away at the Alice decision. Let’s defend that original vision of the patent system, as promoting real inventions that help people—not extortionate scams like the one that threatened Ruth Taylor’s livelihood. And check out our video of Justus Decher, another Saved by Alice small business.