“I know my ideas when I see them on a screen,” inventor said in 2011.
A software company is founded in 2001, just as the dot-com bust slips the tech sector into a recession. The product never takes off, and the company gives up and shuts its doors in 2004.
A few years later, the company founder is contacted about his patents. Promised a small percentage of whatever “monetization” takes place, the founder sells to a hedge fund. The fund creates an LLC and in 2008, he proceeds to sue several tech companies in the court that looks most promising: the Eastern District of Texas.
Sound like a familiar story? It’s happened literally hundreds of times, but a long-running case that just ended this week is special. David Gelernter isn’t a typical patent owner. He’s a well-known computer scientist who teaches at Yale. The lawsuit (PDF) over his patents, Mirror Worlds LLC v. Apple, claimed Gelernter invented the basic ideas behind features like Spotlight, Cover Flow, and the Time Machine. The case reached a turning point in 2010, when a jury said (PDF) that Apple infringed three of Gelernter’s patents and should pay a royalty of $625 million.
It would have been one of the largest of all time, if it had stood. But six months after winning the massive verdict, the judge who oversaw the case ripped it away, ruling that Mirror Worlds’ lawyers hadn’t sufficiently proved their case. Mirror Worlds appealed, but to no avail.
Gelernter, his investors, and his lawyers will all finally get a payday, albeit one that’s just a fraction of what they nearly had in 2011. Gelernter’s idea—essentially, the presentation of documents in chronological order—would likely have a harder time getting a patent today. And multi-million dollar settlements with patent-holding companies aren’t common anymore. So why did Gelernter’s patents succeed where others failed?
In part, it’s because Gelernter is famous within certain circles, and his company briefly got the attention of Steve Jobs. It’s also because the “patent troll” companies that ultimately took control of his patent had good timing and got lucky—although not nearly as lucky as they almost were in 2011.
When Mirror Worlds ran out of appeals, it gave up and sold its patent—to another patent troll called Network-1 Security. In 2013, Network-1 created a similarly named LLC, this time called Mirror Worlds Technologies, and filed another lawsuit (PDF) in the Eastern District of Texas. The same patent, No. 6,006,227, was used to sue the same target, Apple.
Apple said the issue was precluded by the result in an earlier case. After more than a year of additional litigation, a different judge said that the “new” Mirror Worlds could indeed sue again. They were suing over new versions of Mac OS X that didn’t exist earlier.
But while Mirror Worlds would get a kind of “do-over” on its arguments, Apple wouldn’t get the same treatment—Judge Davis had ruled against Apple on validity, and that was final. Faced with the prospect of that depressing playing field, Apple settled on Friday, a few days before a second trial was due to start.
Mirror Worlds is the name of a book Gelernter wrote, published in 1991. It includes early hypothesizing about how software models will change the world, and in a vague way it predicted some of what came about through the modern Web.
“Mirror Worlds aren’t mere information services,” wrote Gelernter, in a passage quoted later in The Economist. “They are places you can ‘stroll around’, meeting and electronically conversing with friends or random passers-by. If you find something you don’t like, post a note; you’ll soon discover whether anyone agrees with you.”
Gelernter’s book got a fair amount of press attention, including from the New York Times’ John Markoff, who wrote about the Yale professor’s vision of a wholly networked world in 1992.
While Gelernter’s fan-base among journalists and intellectuals was growing, his optimistic view of technology also made him a dangerous enemy. Ted Kaczynski, the anti-technology fanatic who became known as the “Unabomber,” targeted Gelernter with a letter-bomb in 1993. The bomb put Gelernter in the hospital for weeks, blinded him in one eye, and caused severe and permanent damage to his right hand, which he covers with a glove.
The injuries didn’t prevent the professor from succeeding as a professor, writer, and businessperson. In 2001, he created a company called Mirror Worlds, which marketed a product called Scopeware that would organize digital documents into “streams.” Despite positive press coverage, the company didn’t gain traction.
Scopeware briefly got Steve Jobs’ attention, however. “Please check out this software ASAP,” wrote Jobs in an e-mail that later came out in litigation. “It may be something for our future, and we may want to secure a license ASAP.” Apple met with Mirror Worlds, but nothing came of it.
When Apple started to come out with features like Cover Flow and Time Machine, Gelernter believed his own ideas being used. “I know my ideas—our ideas—when I see them on a screen,” he told the New York Times in 2011, while his case was on appeal.
At that point, Gelernter said, it was more about getting credit than getting money. He described his financial interest in Mirror Worlds as being modest—”2 percent of something,” he told the NYT.
Gelernter didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.
Mirror Worlds targeted several other big companies, as well, including H-P, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, and Microsoft. By late last year, those defendants had all settled. Microsoft reportedly paid $4.6 million to settle the Mirror Worlds claims.