James Lee Phillips
Jul 28, 2012

App Product Authorization

Ric Richardson virtually established the now-familiar product authentication method, the "try and buy" approach seen on everything from magazine distribution to shareware to Microsoft products. The company that Richardson founded, Uniloc, went on to become a major player in the copy protection and anti-piracy end of the software world. Uniloc has also become a major player in the litigation world, to date filing at least 73 lawsuits against some of the biggest names in software.

Ric, and Uniloc as a whole, probably feel a sense of ownership on any subsequent method of  product activation method, and this patent seems to be an attempt to close some gaps in this encompassing theory.

Ric is publicly upset at the number of "rather disgusting emails" sent to him by people who didn't know that Martin S. Edelman is actually the author of the '067 patent. The cause of this flame war? This patent is the subject of Uniloc's latest barrage of lawsuits against EA Games, Distinctive Developments, Full Fat Productions, Gameloft, Halfbrick Studios, Laminar Research, Madfinger Games, Polarbit, Square Enix, and, most significantly, Mojang -- whose Minecraft game has won considerable fandom.
President of EA Labels Frank Gibeau poses for a photo in front of an EA logo. Electronic Arts is being sued for patent infringement by Uniloc.
Minecraft's considerable player base includes (perhaps disproportionately) many who are both exceedingly willing to express their negative reaction as well as inclined to oppose software patents. At the risk of editorializing, there is considerable validity to the latter view; software patents seem likely to reduce competition in favor of large corporations, with fallout including higher prices, increased risk to security and stability of systems, and ultimately job losses. Most software patents could be replaced by copyrights, but patents are much more suited to aggressive litigation.

On first glance, one might be forgiven for thinking that "A system for preventing unauthorized access to electronic data" was some sort of crucial security technology, perhaps something that the Pentagon would use to protect classified servers from terrorist hackers. In reality, the patent most closely applies to server-based authentication via smart card readers. And in recent practice, what Uniloc is suing over is basically anything that allows Android gamers to unlock the full app from the free demo.

Mojang, the maker of Minecraft, is also being sued by Uniloc for patent infringement..Does the '067 patent indirectly assert this use? Yes, and quite a bit more. In fact, it covers any way in which "protected" data can be "authorized" via mobile means for full ownership and use. The patent is applicable whenever you download an app, or "music, movies, e-books, and the like" to your smartphone or tablet (or laptop, or PC, or server), just as long as some (or none) of it is usable unless you pay for the license. It's applicable no matter how you connect to the remote licensing "authority" (wired, wireless, smart card, etc.) and it's applicable no matter how the content is unlocked.

The three essential elements are the "electronic device", the "license medium", and the "registration authority". The license medium is specifically described as portable, while the other two are left open to interpretation. Therefore, the first two elements can co-exist in the same device -- as with smartphones, for instance. If the device is stationary (like a PC) but the medium is portable (like a disc or memory card), the patent still applies. Obviously, the registration authority is assumed to be remote from the first two, but after careful reading I can't conclude that this must be the case; the registration authority only needs to have the relevant database to authorize the data, and possess the capability for the database to be updated.

So what doesn't it cover? Well, if the trial version of an app is distinct from the full version (i.e., if you have to download the full version after paying for it), that's outside the realm of this patent. Likewise, '067 doesn't apply if the licensing method is a stationary device (as we've noted above), in which case Uniloc will probably still be involved via another of its product activation patents. The legal division likely identifies any real-world instance of product activation or copy protection, and then leafs through Uniloc's patents to see which one is most litigable.

Unlike any number of other software patents, '067 is reasonably specific, arguably novel, and some case could be made for non-obviousness. However, I'm unconvinced that "a person having ordinary skill in the art" wouldn't come up with something very similar to solve the problem, despite the examples given in the Prior Art section. The separation of the three integral elements strikes me as deceptive, too easily interpreted as three distinct elements and therefore not immediately recognizable as describing an unlockable smartphone app, for example.

Assuming the extremely remote possibility that Notch was even aware of this patent before developing the Android version of Minecraft (or "Mindcraft", as Uniloc's complaint spells it), there's plenty of reason why he wouldn't consider his code in violation of it. This indicates to me that the patent is at best too broad, and at worst deceptively worded, but I can see a judge finding as strong an argument for the assertion of the patent than they did in Uniloc vs. Microsoft (or at least, every OTHER judge).

However, the endgame for any patent troll is a settlement, an agreement not based on a determination of justice but on the amount that the defendant feels they can afford to lose. The only problem with this resolution is that a settlement earns the aggressive prosecution some subsequent weight (call it a 75% share of credibility). At the time of this writing, Uniloc has been satisfied by settlements in 25 of its 73 cases. Is Uniloc a patent troll? I'll only say that the likelihood of the answer being "yes" is inversely proportional to the validity of this patent. And it may or may not be relevant that the suit was filed in the The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, already notorious for siding with patent trolls significantly more often than any other District Court.