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Almost 20 years after pioneering a form of downloadable digital audio, musician Perry Leopold was shocked to learn that someone had been awarded a patent on the application in the mid-1990s and had been suing rivals for infringement. “I built an entire business around it in 1984,” said Leopold, who founded a music network. Leopold had never bothered to patent downloadable digital audio because he considered it an application, not an invention, and therefore public domain. That someone had the “audacity” to patent it 10 years later drove him crazy. So when his attorney sent him a New York Times article about a Boston-based Web site that helps lawyers, rivals and others overturn unwarranted patents, he was quick to log on. Leopold learned the identity of the patent holder, San Francisco-based InTouch Group, on his first visit to BountyQuest.com. Not only did the site provide him with the identity of the patent holder, it also offered an anonymous bounty of $10,000 to anyone offering sufficient evidence to get the patent revoked. It took Leopold only 15 minutes to gather the evidence, including a conference paper he had written in 1987, to help him become one of BountyQuest’s first four $10,000 bounty winners this week. His submission of evidence has no direct legal effect on the patent, but it could impact ongoing or future legal proceedings, according to representatives of BountyQuest. In April, InTouch filed suit against five companies, accusing them of infringing on its patented method of delivering music samples online. Leopold said several parties involved in those lawsuits have contacted him since he collected the bounty. Joshua Kaplan, president and CEO of InTouch Group, said the company would look into Leopold’s claim but didn’t think it applied to InTouch’s 18-claim patent. “I don’t think we’re too concerned that the concept of sending a MIDI file over a modem constitutes prior art over our patent,” Kaplan said, referring to one of the earliest methods of composing and transporting music via computer. “There are so many things that we’re doing here that just weren’t technologically available at the time.” Billed as a human search engine of academics, scientists and researchers, BountyQuest was founded in October by former patent lawyer Charles Cella. Cella developed the site as an alternative to the costly legal battles his clients often faced when confronted with a patent infringement lawsuit. With an average litigation cost of $1 million, many clients routinely paid royalties on “junk patents” they believed were unoriginal ideas. Give a group of knowledgeable people an incentive to network, Cella argues, and you can often get back to the original inventors, like Leopold. Cella said the underlying theory behind BountyQuest’s method is six degrees of separation, where everyone is related to everyone else. That’s somewhat different from the methods used by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, where legions of examiners work full time researching patent claims but rely primarily on academic journals, patent databases and other research. In November, the office received permission to publish patent applications before reaching a decision, making them available for prior art, but examiners are still prohibited from discussing specific patents with industry experts in order to protect the secrecy of the ideas. Because the ideas discussed on BountyQuest.com are already patented, no such restrictions are required. That’s not to say that the site is entirely open. Those posting bounties are allowed to remain anonymous. Cella argues that anonymity is useful for companies that are trying to avoid litigation for possible patent infringement. This way, they can explore the idea that a patent may be bogus without exposing themselves to litigation. Participating companies must post a bounty of at least $10,000 and pay BountyQuest a posting fee of $2,500. BountyQuest also collects a bonus equal to 40 percent of the bounty for each successful submission. InTouch and other companies have criticized the site’s willingness to keep the identities of posters private. InTouch’s Kaplan suspects that Leopold’s bounty may have been offered and paid by online retailing giant Amazon.com, which InTouch is suing over patent infringement. In addition to the fact that the companies are involved in a dispute, Kaplan points out that Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, is a major investor in BountyQuest (a photo on the site depicts Bezos as one of the three main players in the site’s launch). Amazon spokesman Bill Curry would not comment on that hypothesis, but said he agreed with BountyQuest’s privacy policy. Since its launch in October, BountyQuest has posted nearly 60 bounties. The largest was a $50,000 offering concerning a Unocal gas-additive patent. The site says it had a 20 percent success rate for its first 20 bounty hunts. Clarke McAllister, who successfully challenged a Walker Digital patent on alterable tickets that took off on his own invention of changeable ski lift tickets, said he has no plans to bring legal proceedings against Walker Digital. He does, however, plan to revisit BountyQuest. “It’s the best consulting rate I’ve ever had, $10,000 an hour,” McAllister said. Related Articles from The Industry Standard: Patent Pundits on Parade Patent Problems Surviving the Internet Patent Wars Copyright � 2001 The Industry Standard

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