Sunday, April 16, 2006

Geoff Goodfellow: the prior art that didn't appear in NTP v. RIM?

Was there killer prior art undisclosed in the NTP v. RIM battle?

from the New York Times via Int. Herald Tribune:

Goodfellow said that NTP was concerned that his earlier work might undermine its patent claims, and that the company made a big effort to ensure that it did not. "I kind of had a big grin on my face that someone had dug deep enough to find the person where it all began," Goodfellow recalled.

On a visit a year later, as Goodfellow remembers it, Wallace introduced him to a travel companion by saying: "Geoff's the inventor of wireless e-mail. My client patented some of its implementation workings."

Wallace, in an e-mail response to a reporter's questions, disputed the quotation. But two things are certain. Goodfellow, an early participant in Silicon Valley's grass-roots computer culture, disdained the notion of protecting his ideas with patents. And Thomas Campana Jr., a Chicago inventor with no such qualms, patented the idea of wireless e-mail almost a decade after Goodfellow's original work.

Campana, who died in 2004, was a founder of NTP, and his patent push yielded a bonanza for the company, which will receive $612.5 million in a settlement reached last month in its patent infringement suit against Research In Motion, or RIM, maker of the BlackBerry.

For legal and technology experts, the tale of Goodfellow's pioneering work is evidence of the shortcomings of the U.S. patent system, which was created to protect individual creativity but has increasingly become a club for giant corporations and aggressive law firms.

Several legal experts suggested that Goodfellow's work might have constituted important "prior art" - earlier public information that is relevant to a patent application - that should have been disclosed to patent examiners and the courts by both sides in the dispute.

Despite what might have been, Goodfellow says he has no regrets.

"You don't patent the obvious," Goodfellow said in a recent interview. "The way you compete is to build something that is faster, better, cheaper. You don't lock your ideas up in a patent and rest on your laurels."

NTP, Goodfellow says, seemed intent on neutralizing him as a complication to its patent case against Research In Motion. NTP hired Goodfellow as a consultant; invoices show he was paid about $19,600 for several days' work in 2002. As part of a formal contract, he signed a nondisclosure agreement, prohibiting him from revealing any information or consulting with any other parties during the period of the lawsuit.

In an e-mail response to a question about NTP's contacts with Goodfellow, Wallace maintained that Goodfellow was retained because he had been mentioned in news articles from the early 1990s "regarding a product called RadioMail" - his effort to commercialize the wireless e-mail idea - but that Goodfellow "could not locate any documentation beyond these articles regarding the product."

As it happens, he had documented his wireless e-mail concept even earlier.

In 1974, Goodfellow was hired as an assistant computer operator at SRI International, an independent research group, and worked in the laboratory of the pioneering computer researcher Douglas Englebart. By the early 1980s, the Arpanet, the network that preceded the modern Internet, was being used by thousands of academics, scientists and military officers - and by Goodfellow, who realized that it was possible to relay a mail message from the network to an alphanumeric pager that had just been introduced by Millicom, a company nearby in Sunnyvale, California, which called its service Metagram.

In 1982, he published his idea on a widely read Arpanet mailing list called Telecom Digest, in a note titled "Electronic mail for people on the move."

The service, he wrote, "allows Arpanet users to send messages to people on the MetaNet without having to run and find a terminal with a modem on it or go through the human dispatcher, i.e., so you can now do fun things like be driving down the road and have a message appear that says: You have new mail."

Goodfellow went on to become a founder of an early Internet company, Anterior Technology (later renamed RadioMail), in 1986. Beginning in 1990, at roughly the same time AT&T hired Campana to develop pager technology into a wireless mail gateway, Goodfellow set out to commercialize his idea, ultimately receiving $3 million from backers, including Motorola.

RadioMail was introduced in 1991, and the next year Goodfellow embarked on a partnership with Research In Motion, a Canadian company, and Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications giant. But like a number of Goodfellow's projects, RadioMail was ahead of its time, and he left the company in 1996.

He walked away from Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom without the great wealth that it had afforded so many. But if he is miffed, it is because so much of the history has been forgotten.

"I don't want to sound bitter," he said. "I'm overjoyed that what I saw more than 20 years ago is now de rigueur."

Today, Goodfellow's invention and its fate are a curious but significant footnote to the bitter patent battle between NTP, whose only assets are the Campana patents, and Research In Motion, which has come to dominate the market for wireless electronic mail handsets. Although the NTP patents have been tentatively invalidated by the U.S. Patent Office, a jury upheld NTP's infringement suit in 2002, and Research In Motion chose to settle the legal fight for fear of a court injunction against its popular service.

And Wallace, the NTP lawyer, rejects the idea that Goodfellow's work casts any further shadow over his client's patent claims.

Others take a different view. "The moral of the story is that for a long time now the patent system has been misused," said Mitchell Kapor, founder of the software publisher Lotus Development and an adviser to Goodfellow in the early 1990s. "If it had been properly used, NTP would never have been issued its patents, and they never would have had a basis to pursue a lawsuit against RIM."

Although his role went unnoticed by the U.S. courts and patent examiners, Goodfellow's invention is woven into the very fabric of the Internet. The computer network assigns different addresses, known as ports, now numbering more than 65,000, to different services like electronic mail or the World Wide Web. To this day, Port 99 remains set aside for Goodfellow's original brainstorm: pushing an electronic mail message to a wireless pager.

Goodfellow sold his bar in Prague in 2004 and returned to Silicon Valley to help his brother run an Internet photography business. He is now back in the thick of innovation, as chairman of a start-up Eritrean firm working on voice- over-Internet-protocol technology.

In his spare time he volunteers as a disc jockey at KZSU, the Stanford University student radio station. He said his show,, is his way of continuing to look for the technology edge.

"I'm really interested in the intersection of technology and entertainment," said Goodfellow, who just turned 50. "These days I'm still trying to spend my time doing new things."


see also
Geoff Goodfellow, early inventor of wireless email, profiled


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