Public enemy number one

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has identified ten companies whose ‘crimes’, it claims have made them ‘enemies’ of the public domain.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has identified ten companies that have patented ‘technologies’ that are overbroad. Many, it claims, pose a threat to freedom of expression online. And every single one of the targeted patents is held by an entity that has threatened or brought lawsuits against small businesses, individuals, or nonprofits.

Target number one is Acacia, a company that the EFF says has litigated relentlessly against small businesses to enforce patents that it claims cover a broad array of technologies used to send and receive streaming media online. Victims of Acacia’s legal threats include websites that host home videos and several ‘mom-and-pop’ adult media companies.

Other companies that have offended the EFF include Acceris, which claims that its patents cover any technologies (such as Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP) that allow people to make phone calls over the Internet, and ClearChannel, which has been threatening artists and small CD companies that record live concerts and burn them to CDs for fans at the end of a show.

Another target is Test.com, which has a patent on a method for taking and scoring tests online, and has been sending threatening letters to universities with distance learning programs.

‘Patents are meant to protect companies against giant competitors, not to help them prey on folks who can barely afford a lawyer,’ said EFF Staff Attorney Jason Schultz, who leads the EFFs ‘Patent Busting’ project. ‘We hope our project will not only assist the victims of these abusive patents but also help make the case for global reform of the patent system.’

With its targets in sight, EFF’s team of lawyers, technologists, and experts will now begin to research and collect prior art. Prior art is hard evidence that a patent is ‘obvious’ because it is based on a commonly known idea or because the claimed ‘invention’ actually existed before the patent was filed.

Once the team has gathered enough prior art on a given patent, the EFF will submit a petition to the US Patent and Trademark Office in a legal process known as ‘reexamination.’ If the USPTO finds the prior art compelling, it will formally revoke the patent and release the idea back into the public domain, where, the EEF says, it belongs.

A complete list of ‘public enemies’ can be found on the EEF site.