Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak has no love for the US patent system, and prefers split-pea soup to "that patent-troll thing" as practiced by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen in his current patent-infringment lawsuit against Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and others.
"A lot of patents are pretty much not worth that much," Wozniak told his keynote audience at the Embedded System Conference Silicon Valley (ESC) taking place this week in San José, California.
"In other words, any fifth-grader could come up with the same approach."
When asked about patent-trolling, Wozniak had two personal stoies to tell: one about Allen, and one about an early experience that soured him on patents held and enforced by deep-pockets companies.
"That patent-troll thing," Wozniak, said, introducing his first story. "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."
From Wozniak's point of view, Allen's lawsuit will not help anyone except Allen and his lawyers. "Well heck," he said, "Paul Allen should be out there investing in companies that are doing something, making products, actually making a new future for the world, and not 'I'm ... going to sue people, and get in bed with the lawyers to make my money.' That's not the right way."
As his keynote audience appladed, Woznik said: "So I had dinner with friends rather than go see Paul Allen."
What particularly cheeses Wozniak off is the fact that big companies can afford to assign engineers to projects that simply develop patents, then sit on them until some other, often entrepreneurial, company uses the patented techniques.
"It's not really special what they come up with,." he said, referring to patent-seeking teams of engineeers. "But since you were a rich company, you can investigate [a technique] years before it's going to be affordable for products. You could investigate it ... and patent it, patent it, patent it."
Companies then merely sit on the patents, wait for someone to come up with something similar, then pounce. "Maybe that stuff's financially better – that everybody eventually will come along and want to do it," he said of this profit-making patent hoarding, but added: "I don't really dig that – that patent-troll thing."
He then told a story of an experience with what he characterized as an obvious patent that a deep-pockets company sprung on him during his early days at Apple.
"The Apple II, okay? I put it together, and I'm going to put characters on my TV set, and there's this trick called a character generator. Okay, that'll help me figure out which dots to put out at the right time to pop up on an American TV," he reminisced.
"And then we find out RCA has a patent on a character generator for any raster-scanned setup," he said. "And they patented it at a time when nobody could have envisioned it really being used or anything ... and they got five bucks for each Apple II, based on this little idea that's not even an idea. Y'know: store the bits, store the bits, then pop in a character on your TV."
The RCA character-generator patent was an example of a patent, from Wozniak's point of view, that the aforementioned fifth-grader could have come up with. "I don't know any other way you could do it – anybody would have come up with that with the same approach." ®
After Wozniak and his friends decided to snub Paul Allen's gig at the Computer History Museum, they soothed their ire at 10-state chain eatery best known for its pies: Marie Callender's. But it wasn't Double Cream Blueberry that attracted Woz & Co. "Marie Callender's has split-pea soup, split-pea soup with the ham." Asked to compare that soup with the delicacy served up by Pea Soup Andersen's of Buellton, California, the gourmet in Wozniak didn't hesitate a nanosecond. "It's better" he quickly replied – but just as quickly qualified his enthusiasm. "It's better if you get a good Marie Callender's. If you get the one in Cupertino, it's kind of watery."