'Man in a van' vs. Microsoft

BY ASHER MOSES
Last updated 05:00 06/08/2010
Ric Richardson
STEVE HOLLAND
MAN IN A VAN: Ric Richardson's mobile office in Byron Bay.

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Ric Richardson, the "man in a van" battling Microsoft in a patent suit worth hundreds of millions of dollars, is now taking the fight to tech giants including Sony and McAfee.

The Australian inventor whose company, Uniloc, was awarded $US388 million in a patent infringement case against Microsoft, only to have the jury decision overturned by a judge, says his patent has withstood legal scrutiny and now the rest of the tech industry must pay up.

But Richardson says he is in it only for the principle and will donate the bulk of any payout to a secret charity.

Richardson, 48, patented the technology designed to deter software piracy in the early 90s. He is a serial inventor with over 40 patents to his name and does much of his thinking in his van, which he dubs the "DickMobile", near his leafy property in Byron Bay.

Richardson's website lists over 140 projects and inventions, ranging from the "shadesaver" sun glass cords to a smart cruise control device for cars.

Richardson was dumbfounded in September last year after US Direct Judge William Smith "vacated" the jury's earlier decision in the Microsoft case, which had award him one of the largest patent pay-offs in US history. Smith said the jury "lacked a grasp of the issues".

The case, which alleges Microsoft earned billions of dollars by using Richardson's anti-piracy technology in its Windows XP and Office programs, has been going through the courts since 2003 and Uniloc is appealing the judge's decision, alleging bias.

In the meantime, it has filed new patent infringement suits in a Texas district court against Sony America, security company McAfee, video game maker Activision and the software makers Quark, Borland Software and Aspyr Media.

Richardson said that in the Microsoft case his patent was not questioned by the court and its validity was maintained. The judge merely agreed with Microsoft that the anti-piracy methods used by the software giant were different to that described in the patent.

"The fact that the patent withstood a firestorm of scrutiny has given me the confidence to support Uniloc as it goes about protecting its patent rights that I assigned to the company shortly after it was invented," he said.

"As I said on ABC's Australian Story, you can't decide to patent your invention and then let it flap in the wind. You have to stand by your decision."

Although patent damages awards will be shared amongst Uniloc's other shareholders, Richardson owns a major chunk of the company and is set to potentially reap many millions.

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Of the Microsoft case, Richardson said he always expected the company would pour all the resources and time it could into the legal case, as $10-15 million in legal fees was paltry compared to the hundreds of millions at stake.

"I haven't researched how many times Microsoft has said 'oops sorry we infringed your patent, here is the royalty you asked for' but I doubt it has happened too many times," he said.

For a man who has earned much success from his inventions - the anti-piracy patent alone has been licensed by companies including IBM and Sega - Richardson lives remarkably simply.

He and his wife donate to a charitable cause that he will not reveal, and he says the cause will get any excess money he earns beyond that required to maintain his lifestyle. To celebrate the Microsoft victory, before the jury decision was overturned, the pair bought a "chook shed".

"You can really live well on $10-15 million in assets," he said.

"You should set your lifestyle around something that's reasonable and then treat the rest of it for what it really is, which is a business success score."

But intellectual property lawyer Trevor Choy said Richardson was seen by the tech giants as a "patent troll in a van".

"Instead of licensing new technology, trolls wait for a company to use their patented technology and then threaten litigation in order to extract royalties," he said.

"Hence the desperately vigorous defence of the case by Microsoft. If they let him win, they'll face lawsuits from thousands of mainly US based trolls.

"In his defence, Ric seems to be much more proactive in commercialisation than the trolls, but that doesn't stop the view from being held."

Since appearing on Australian Story, Richardson has helped dozens of Australians turn their ideas from pipe dreams into patents. He has a small staff at his company, R2 Labs, which turns some of his ideas into commercial ventures.

One of his new ventures is a collaborative payment system for eBay, which allows multiple people to buy an item on the site, for instance, a wedding present. The technology could also be licensed to gambling, such as lottery tickets.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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