Why discussing patents over email is bad

This comes up now and again at work. An engineer reads a story from CNET News.com or Slashdot about how some technology company has a patent on something really obvious (like XOR) and is trying to enforce it. The engineer sends email to the internal development email list with a link to the story, and sometimes a snide comment about how totally silly and unenforceable the patent is.

The intent is harmless, but it’s a real problem. In general, patents should not be discussed over email. I’m not a lawyer, but I do understand a little bit about this field. Let me try to explain why it’s a bad idea.

The issue has to do with willful infringement. If a company is found to be infringing on a patent, even accidentally, they can be ordered to pay damages to the patent owner, sometimes millions of dollars. If it turns out that the infringing company knew about the existence of the patent, it’s called “willful infringement.” In those cases, the infringing entity can be required to pay treble damages to the patent owner.

If the patent was discussed over email then it’s much harder to make the argument that the infringement was accidental. treble damages. Ouch.

When I get an email about a patent, it’s too late to repair the damage. I might hit delete in my email program, but we all know that email, especially when sent to a list, never goes away completely. Of course it’s archived in about a thousand different places (on other people’s computers, outgoing mail servers, incoming mail servers, web archives, tape backups, etc.)

And the first thing the lawyers do when filing an infringement case against your company is subpoena all of the email from the past year and start grepping through it for references to the patent. Remember, treble damages. Ouch. So if the lawyers can’t find anything electronic indicating that you knew about the patent but your company still happens to infringe on it, you’ll only get slapped with single damages. Still a lot of ouch, but only 1/3rd as much ouch.

Some might argue, “But it’s OK to talk about this particular patent, because we all know that it is totally unenforceable.” Wrong. Unless you’re a patent attorney, you don’t know enough to make that call. You have to assume that all patents, no matter how ridiculous, might be enforced.

Some companies, such as my former employer, are really concerned about this. Not only do they discourage discussing patents at all over email, they run HTTP proxy servers and completely cut off access to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website from within the corporate intranet.

I’m not suggesting that my employer go that far, because it doesn’t seem to solve the underlying problem (people often find out about patents from news sites, not from searching the patent database itself). But it’s really not asking too much to tell employees to restrain themselves from discussing patents in an electronic, highly searchable medium.

Talk about it at lunchtime. As Rick says, have the conversation at the real water cooler, not the virtual one.

Peach-colored bathroom

Master Bath We just completed our first optional home improvement project. Our master bath is now coral cove, which is really just a fancy name for peach.

In the six months we’ve lived here, we’ve done other improvement projects, like hiring someone to fix the oven three times and the dishwasher twice, but I don’t exactly consider those to be optional. This we decided to do just because we could. We’re homeowners, darn it, and we’ll paint our bathroom whatever color we want!

We hired a guy named Armando to do the job. He did some painting for us in July so we knew he did good work for a very reasonable price. Err, reasonable might be an understatement; he’s dirt cheap and does high-quality work. If you’re looking for a painter in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend him.

And yes, someday we’re going to buy a real digital camera that actually takes decent pictures.

Shekhina on the mind this week

Shekhina by Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy

I made my way to Sinai Temple this past Sunday to hear Leonard Nimoy speak about his new book Shekhina, a “photographic essay” of the feminine side of God. Nimoy spoke eloquently, told some great stories about growing up Jewish in Boston, and spoke about photography, his hobby/passion since the 1970′s. During the talk, he displayed a couple dozen photographs from his book, narrating a spiritual journey as his relationship with God developed and deepened. After speaking for about 40 minutes, answered some questions from Rabbi Wolpe and the audience. It turns out that the model on cover of the book wearing tefillin isn’t Jewish.

It turns out that Nimoy is full of yiddishkeit; he’s not some Kabbalah faker like Madonna or Rosie. Yasher Koach to Steve Silverman from the Sinai Mens’ Club for organizing the event and introducing us to a real mentsch. The Seattle Jewish Federation made a big mistake in asking him not to speak. Despite the controversy surrounding his book, they missed out on an opportunity to learn that this man is much, much more than Mr. Spock.

Niggunim with Reb Mimi

Last night, a dozen folks from the Shtibl Minyan spent an hour and a half with Reb Mimi learning melodies for Shacharit and Musaf. Since every time Jews get together is an opportunity for learning, she started with a brief shiur. We read a commentary on Parashat Kedoshim that said that when a community comes together l’shem shemayim (in the name of Heaven), the Shekhina is present, and that it is our responsibility to create a kli (vessel) for that presence. What an awesome responsibility. Can you imagine? The mere gathering of ten people creates the presence of God. I’ve always taken davening pretty seriously, but this makes the endeavor all the more important.

Many of the melodies we learned came from Reb Shlomo Carlebach z”l; others were Hassidic tunes from Yakar in Jerusalem. Some were haunting and melancholy. All were beautiful.

A couple of people brought tape recorders, and Chaim is planning to burn some CDs so we can learn the melodies well enough to sing them in shul.

I’ll be leading the minyan in Shacharit this Saturday. Even if I don’t get to include some of the new melodies I learned, my kavannah will be greatly enhanced knowing that Shekhina is there.

Protecting email addresses, part 2

MVHS Spartan I wrote on Sunday about wanting to protect email addresses in the MVHS Alumni Internet Directory. I finally found some time to code it up.

The mailto: links have been replaced with a web form that alumni can use to send a message.

Since the website doesn’t require a login, it’s not totally spam-proof. I do include an MD5 hash of the real email address in the form as a hidden variable, so there’s some guarantee that you’ve at least first fetched the form from my website before hitting submit. This isn’t that much for security, but it means that someone writing a robot to abuse the site would have to do some extra work (fetch the webpage first, grab the hidden field, and then submit it back with the spam message).

I’m also using the Email::Valid module to check to make sure that the return address is RFC822 compliant.

People have often asked why the website doesn’t use a password/registration model like alumni.net or classmates.com, because it would certainly do more to discourage spammers. It turns out that spam hasn’t been too big of a problem for the 1500+ alumni listed on the website for the past seven years, and the complexity of passwords and registration just make life things to difficult when all you want to do is send a quick hello to someone you haven’t seen in 10 or 20 years. For the time being, the trust model is working well enough.

Usenet posts from 1993

At lunch today with Mike and David, we were talking about Google and whether the Pyra acquisition would be as successful as the Deja News acquisition. Both Mike and I had read somewhere that Google had managed to get Usenet archives going way back to the beginning, and how it’s become such a valuable historical resource.

So just for kicks, I went and searched Google Groups for author:mradwin@tsoft.net and found 15 posts, all from 1993.

They’re all related to desktop publishing. I used to love fonts. And you can see that I was interested in intellectual property ten years ago, even though I couldn’t spell.

What a trip!

Protecting email addresses for my Alumni Internet Directory

MVHS Spartan I’ve been publishing the Mountain View High School Alumni Internet Directory online since 1995. Think of it as an free version of classmates.com, but just for my high school.

Since a group of us started planning our 10-year reunion, I’ve been thinking about the website more recently. I’ve had RSS feeds on the site since the summer of 1999 (long before I ever heard of blogging), but I finally added the orange XML icon (View the raw XML source) today.

One of the things that has always made alumni timid about using the site is the possibility of getting spam. The fact that their email addresses are published on the web makes them good candidates for email harvester bots. I originally addressed this problem by adding a <meta name="robots" content="noindex,nofollow"> tag to the site, hoping that bots would respect that.

Later, I started using the decimal HTML entity encoder trick (listing addresses like mailto:mradwin&#64;yahoo&#46;com) but I’m sure spammers will catch onto that soon.

So the only thing left to do is to create a “send email to this user” form and list the addresses in the same way that Y! Groups does. The links will look to the user like mradwin@y..... but instead of being a mailto:, they’ll be regular hyperlink to a /bin/mail?to=<secret base64 encoded data> form which asks for an email address and sets the Reply-To header.

The 1500+ alumni registered on the site right now would definitely benefit from this feature. Plus, after changing the email links to use the email-protect form, I’d be able to remove the robots meta tag, which would allow Google and other legit search engines index the site better, increasing visibility to the larger alumni community.

I’ve just gotta find the time to code the thing.

[Update: I found some time to write the code. The mailto: links have been replaced with a web form]

Leonard Nimoy, photographer extraordinare

Saw this ad in the Jewish Journal today:

LEONARD NIMOY goes where no man has gone before. Join him on a voyage towards SHEKHINA

Shekhina

Live at Sinai Temple on Feb. 23, 2003 Leonard Nimoy will present his new book and dialogue with Rabbi David Wolpe.

At least he’s Jewish. There are a few Hollywood celebs who study at the Kabbalah Centre just a few blocks from my home, and I’m not even sure if they’re Jewish. Heck, they probably aren’t even 40.