Yesterday, the German entrepreneur launched a Twitter tirade, threatening to sue Google, Facebook, Citibank, and Twitter for infringing a two-step authentication patent that he drafted in 1997, and published three years later.
"My innovation. My patent." Dotcom announced, posting a Google link to the patent amid histrionics. Called a "method for authorizing in data transmission systems," it could, indeed, cover inventions similar to the two-step password feature that Twitter rolled out yesterday, just hours before Dotcom's rant -- and the flurry of blog posts that followed. By current standards it's not really a work of genius -- just a second password to access Twitter through your iPhone, as an extra security measure -- but in 1997, that might have seemed novel. Perhaps Dotcom isn't just a software racketeer-turned-troll, but an engineer who was way ahead of his time.
He'd also like us to think he's a mensch. To illustrate that, Dotcom offered to license the patent for free, on the condition that Google, Twitter, Facebook, et. al. help fund his defense team (which is reportedly at least $50 million in the hole.) Dotcom argued that the outcome of his copyright case might affect various search engines and social networks. He says it might even hurt the ones that merely act as intermediaries for pirated downloads, rather than solicitors.
It's doubtful any of those companies will find Dotcom's carrot-and-stick plea persuasive -- spokespeople from Google and Twitter couldn't be reached, and Facebook declined to comment. But fortunately for them, Dotcom's patent -- like many of his other innovations -- is kind of a hot mess.
For one thing, the language is frustratingly broad and abstract, which means it might not hold up in a court of law. That issue came up in a recent, closely watched Federal Circuit case called CLS v. Alice, with five judges voting to chuck the defendant's patents because they were too broad and blurry, and didn't seem to point to a particular innovation.
But the bigger problem, according to Villanova Law School associate professor Michael Risch, is that the two-step verification system already existed in the late '90s, albeit for email listserves, rather than social media. At that time, plenty of webmasters were requiring people to click on a link, and then reply to an email in order to join -- a method that anticipates most of the claims in Dotcom's "method for authorizing data transmissions."
In the patent world, that's called "prior art" -- which is a fancy way of saying "someone else came up with it before you did, so your invention is meaningless." The rule helps deflect frivolous and/or mercenary lawsuits, and in this case, it seems like a no-brainer. Never mind that Dotcom is utterly forthcoming about his intentions; the filing shows his patent wasn't published until 2000, and plenty of emailers were using two-step passwords by then.
That said, the embattled software pirate seems to be picking up steam online, and a lot of tech bloggers are saying his patent might hold some weight. Whether that helps his purse strings is another matter entirely.