Floridian Sues Cisco Over Router Patents
A one-man telecom operation out of Miami Beach, Fla., is getting quite a bit of attention for taking on Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) in a patent suit, but at least one routing expert thinks the case won't wash in court.
Allen D. Kaplan made headlines this week with his suit claiming Cisco violates four patents regarding route optimization, the process by which a router decides the best path for a packet. The suit was filed in the name of ConnecTel LLC, a company that boasts Kaplan as its lone employee and is unrelated to the U.K. firm of the same name.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Marshall, Texas, on Nov. 3, with ConnecTel listed as the sole plaintiff, represented by Winstead Sechrest & Minick PC.
Cisco is being chased down first, being the most significant alleged infringer, says Daniel Perez, the Winstead Sechrest attorney for ConnecTel. It seems likely ConnecTel would pursue other cases should it prevail against Cisco; in fact, one undisclosed company has already licensed the patents from ConnecTel, Perez says.
A Cisco spokeswoman said the company hadn't been served with the complaint yet and therefore couldn't comment on the case.
The suit involves four U.S. patents for multiprotocol routing optimization: Nos. 6,016,307; 6,144,641; 6,456,594; and 6,473,404. Granted in 2000 and 2002, all four patents -- credited to Kaplan and William F. McCarthy of Erie, Pa. -- describe a router architecture that uses memory and microprocessors to determine the best route to follow.
Specifically, all four patents say three pools of memory are used: one to store the data being forwarded; one for storing parameters of each path, such as cost, medium, and security level; and one for user priorities.
At least one expert is skeptical Kaplan has created anything special. Lawrence Roberts, CEO of Anagran Inc. and a pioneer of IP routing, notes that Kaplan has simply described techniques that have been used since the 70s.
"There are no algorithms or other unique ideas [in the patents], just claims that routers could decide a route based on more parameters than just cost. Of course, that is exactly what BGP and OSPF, etc., do today," Roberts writes in an email to Light Reading. Roberts believes the case is likely to lose in court.
Perez notes that the patents have gone through their fare share of tests for worthiness, including a hefty stack of prior art that was examined. "Despite all the significant materials provided to the patent office, four patents have been issued," he says.
Still, Roberts thinks the patents are "clearly a mistake of the patent office," adding that the case points to "one of the big problems we have today with a patent office that does not understand communications as well as many other things."
Kaplan took an unusual path into the telecom world. He'd subscribed to several religious motivational pamphlets that arrived by fax, and the complaint says he hit on the idea of becoming a relay point for all these groups, forwarding their faxes at prices lower than their long-distance fees would have been. When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 arrived, Kaplan decided to try starting his own telephone company. [Ed. note: Thank you, FCC!]
According to the complaint, Kaplan became a self-taught expert in telecom, eventually focusing on the possibility of sending fax and voice calls "in real-time" across the Internet. The complaint says Kaplan discovered "none of the available providers had the technology" to do this, and thus he began work building the machines that would eventually lead to his patents.
The complaint notes that Kaplan offered licenses to companies including Cisco and was turned down. Now -- surprise! -- he's accusing Cisco of having reaped enormous profits from unfair use of his invention.
In technology circles, many believe the U.S. Patent Office has been giving the nod to ideas that are too obvious and lack the germ of innovation that's supposed to be at the heart of every patent. Amazon.com, for example, drew an uproar in 1999 over collecting patents thought by many to be unfair, including its patent for single-click shopping.
Obviously, Kaplan doesn't have the firepower of Amazon. His case more resembles that of Jerome Lemelson, the Reno, Nev., inventor who died with more than 500 patents to his name. Many of them cover the basics of technologies such as bar-code readers and VCRs, and while Lemelson's estate continues to file lawsuits and collect royalties, many critics say his work should never have been patented.
Perez denies that Kaplan is a gold-digger, despite the fact that he has been issued no patents other than the ones prompting his lawsuit. "He's an inventor," Perez says. "I do understand that in 2004 people can say a lot of things, but you have to go back to 1996 and ask: Was it there? It wasn't."
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading