Apple co-founder: Microsoft co-founder is a patent troll

By on May 4, 2011, 1:38 PM

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak had a keynote at the Embedded System Conference Silicon Valley (ESC) taking place this week in San José, California. In it, he discussed the US patent system and inevitably talked about how Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is a patent troll, a pejorative term used for a person or company that enforces its patents against one or more alleged infringers with no intention to manufacture or market the patented invention.

"A lot of patents are pretty much not worth that much," Wozniak told his audience, according to The Register. "In other words, any fifth-grader could come up with the same approach. That patent-troll thing. The other night Paul Allen was speaking at the Computer History Museum and I had four tickets. And I decided at the last minute not to go, because I remembered he's suing all these companies like Apple and Google – but he's not suing Microsoft – because he bought all these patents."

Something must have changed, because Wozniak was supporting Allen back in August 2010 when the lawsuit was first announced. Allen accused 11 massive IT companies of patent infringement: Apple, Facebook, Google (and its subsidiary YouTube), AOL, eBay, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, and Yahoo. He alleged that they used technology created by his Interval Research lab in the 1990s, and Wozniak was okay with that. The Bloomberg video below shows the interview in question, and I've also transcribed the relevant quotes in case you can't watch the video.

"I'm not a lawyer, and we're getting into the legal category, not just the technology category, but I think this lawsuit represents the idea that, you know, 'hey, patents, individual inventors,' they don't have the funds to go up against big companies," Wozniak previously said. So he's sort of representing some original investors. I'm not at all against the idea of patent trolls cause I've had friends who just got forced into bankruptcy by bigger people who had more money and could have a lawsuit against them, forced them to be their own lawyers, and in the end, sometimes they're victorious, but it's a real hard way to do it. So if you're going to have a patent and say ‘It's worth some money, I'll sell it,' well, even if Paul Allen makes a fortune off of it, I think he had the insight to recognize which patents were valuable."

At that point, the Bloomberg interviewer points out that Allen himself wasn't an inventor of the patented technologies he's suing over. Wozniak then says: "Well, Paul Allen was an inventor in the past. He had a big impact even on my own choices of what to invent. You have to have the knowledge to invent. He represents inventors. By owning the patents, you represent inventors."

Later, when asked about the timing of the lawsuit (it was many years after the technologies were considered innovative, Wozniak defends Allen once again. "To do something first — it's so hard to do something first, and once you've done it, everybody says, oh, this is possible, now it seems so easy, it seems trivial. No it wasn't, at first. Those patents should be respected."

In short, Wozniak went from supporting patent trolling, and thus Allen, to hating on both quite viciously. It seems the fact that Allen wasn't suing Microsoft ended up changing Wozniak's mind.

For the record, Allen's suit against the Web was dismissed in December 2010. Still, the saga isn't over yet.

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