Feeds

Texas judge sends Uniloc packing in Rackspace patent suit

Turns out floating-point numbers aren't patentable

Boost IT visibility and business value

In a rare move, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas has granted early dismissal of a patent lawsuit filed by Uniloc against Rackspace, having found that Uniloc's patent described nothing more than a mathematical formula and was therefore invalid.

"The early dismissal of this case delivers a clear message that patent assertion entities can't expect quick settlements on weak claims, a tactic many patent assertion entities use to monetize questionable patents," Rackspace general counsel Alan Schoenbaum said in a statement.

Rackspace was defended in the suit by Red Hat, which offers its customers indemnification against intellectual property claims under its Open Source Assurance program.

In this specific case, Uniloc had alleged that the way in which Linux handles floating-point arithmetic violated US Patent 5,892,697, Claim 1 of which purports to describe:

A method for processing floating-point numbers, each floating-point number having at least a sign portion, an exponent portion and a mantissa portion, comprising the steps of:
  • converting a floating-point number memory register representation to a floating-point register representation; 
  • rounding the converted floating-point number; 
  • performing an arithmetic computation upon said rounded number resulting in a new floating-point value; and
  • converting the resulting new floating-point register value to a floating-point memory register representation. 

Like many other operating systems, libraries, and applications, Linux's handling of floating-point numbers is based on the widely recognized IEEE Standard 754. But Uniloc had alleged that the specific implementation used by the open source OS infringed on its patent, which it claimed represented "a definite and substantive advancement to a concrete industry standard."

That advancement? Read the language for yourself. IEEE 754 specifies that you should carry out arithmetic operations on floating point numbers and then round them. Uniloc's patent describes a process where you round the numbers first and then do the arithmetic.

In documents filed with the court and obtained by Groklaw, Uniloc's lawyers argued (among other points) that its patent didn't merely describe a minor modification to a known algorithm – which would not be patentable – because no specific computation is mentioned.

"This step requires an arithmetic computation to be performed, but is not limited to any particular one. It could be multiplication, division, a logarithmic operation, etc. Likewise, the conversion steps do not require the application of any particular mathematical formula, let alone recite a mathematical formula," Uniloc's brief explains.

Chief Judge Leonard Davis wasn't buying it, however, and instead agreed with Rackspace and Red Hat that Uniloc's patent failed every legal test of validity – and that allowing it to stand would actually be harmful to society.

"Even when tied to computing, since floating-point numbers are a computerized numeric format, the conversion of floating-point numbers has applications across fields as diverse as science, math, communications, security, graphics, and games," Judge Davis wrote in his ruling. "Thus, a patent on Claim 1 would cover vast end uses, impeding the onward march of science."

A potentially historic ruling

Such a ruling is unusual for the Eastern District of Texas, which has long been notoriously plaintiff-friendly in patent cases. According to Rackspace's Schoenbaum, this was actually the first time that a patent complaint had ever been dismissed so quickly in the district.

It's certainly a place well familiar to Uniloc. A "non-producing entity" – patent troll, for short – Uniloc has 78 patent lawsuits pending in US courts as of this writing. All but five are in the Eastern District of Texas.

In a blog post on Thursday, Shoenbaum described Uniloc's case against Rackspace in no uncertain terms:

The patent at issue is a joke. Uniloc alleged that a floating point numerical calculation by the Linux operating system violated U.S. Patent 5,892,697 – an absurd assertion. This is the sort of low quality patent that never should have been granted in the first place and which patent trolls buy up by the bushel full, hoping for fast and cheap settlements.

Schoenbaum went on to note that patent litigation is now the top issue for Rackspace's legal team, and that the company's costs for defense against patent suits have increased 500 per cent since 2010 alone. As such, he praised Judge Davis's ruling:

It's refreshing to see that the judiciary recognizes that many of the fundamental operations of a computer are pure mathematics and are not patentable subject matter. We expect, and hope, that many more of these spurious software patent lawsuits are dismissed on similar grounds.

Uniloc did not immediately reply to The Register's requests for comment. ®

Build a business case: developing custom apps

More from The Register

next story
Hello, police, El Reg here. Are we a bunch of terrorists now?
Do Brits risk arrest for watching beheading video nasty? We asked the fuzz
Snowden on NSA's MonsterMind TERROR: It may trigger cyberwar
Plus: Syria's internet going down? That was a US cock-up
UK government accused of hiding TRUTH about Universal Credit fiasco
'Reset rating keeps secrets on one-dole-to-rule-them-all plan', say MPs
Caught red-handed: UK cops, PCSOs, specials behaving badly… on social media
No Mr Fuzz, don't ask a crime victim to be your pal on Facebook
Felony charges? Harsh! Alleged Anon hackers plead guilty to misdemeanours
US judge questions harsh sentence sought by prosecutors
e-Borders fiasco: Brits stung for £224m after US IT giant sues UK govt
Defeat to Raytheon branded 'catastrophic result'
Yes, but what are your plans if a DRAGON attacks?
Local UK gov outs most ridiculous FoI requests...
EU justice chief blasts Google on 'right to be forgotten'
Don't pretend it's a freedom of speech issue – interim commish
Munich considers dumping Linux for ... GULP ... Windows!
Give a penguinista a hug, the Outlook's not good for open source's poster child
This'll end well: US govt says car-to-car jibber-jabber will SAVE lives
Department of Transportation starts cogs turning for another wireless comms standard
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 10 endpoint backup mistakes
Avoid the ten endpoint backup mistakes to ensure that your critical corporate data is protected and end user productivity is improved.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Rethinking backup and recovery in the modern data center
Combining intelligence, operational analytics, and automation to enable efficient, data-driven IT organizations using the HP ABR approach.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.