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A patent of my own

Started: 2017-05-13 16:20:04

Submitted: 2017-05-13 18:35:04

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator is issued US Patent number 9,622,187

When I worked at Qualcomm they were quite proud of their patent portfolio. The lobby of the main office building in Boulder was decorated with plaques of the front pages of patents issued to people in Boulder, and the main office in San Diego had a massive wall covered with a sample of the company's patents. Some of my coworkers had their own copies of patents issued to them. Qualcomm's patent portfolio was a major cash cow, generating as much or more income than engineering, though part of that was the way Qualcomm chose to split revenue selling chips and the license to use them to OEMs. Qualcomm went as far as to split the company into a couple of wholly-owned subsidiaries to avoid the possibility that a poorly-considered open-source license would accidentally confer patent licenses -- if the subsidiary that writes, uses, and distributes the software doesn't own the patents in question, there's no way that subsidiary could license the patents. (I'll leave it to others, including various courts, to decide whether Qualcomm abused its patent portfolio; but their posture never made me feel uncomfortable in the way that a patent troll's would.)

During the time I worked at Qualcomm I never had the opportunity to patent anything -- I was working on modest improvements to existing technologies -- until the last project I worked on. This was implementing a new mechanism for limiting SAR by averaging transmit power over a period of time, rather than considering the maximum instantaneous power. Out of an abundance of caution, the FCC regulates the amount of power that phones can radiate into a human body, but these regulations assume that it's 1995 and phones only transmit voice at a constant power. (Don't forget that the microwave radiation put off by mobile phones is non-ionizing radiation; it can heat up water or body tissue (that's how a microwave oven heats food) but it can't ionize atoms and cause chemical reactions the same way x-rays (or UV light) can.) For data -- uploading pictures to Instagram -- it probably makes more sense to burst upload at higher power, then stop, rather than be limited to a lower constant power.

I got involved in the project when corporate R&D wanted to actually implement their algorithm in an actual phone. I helped an intern convert R&D's algorithm into C so we could run it in the phone's baseband processor, then took his code and productized it into something that would run well and worked the way we expected. In the course of field-testing this we discovered a major problem with the algorithm: it would blow through its entire six-minute power budget in a minute, leaving nothing else for the next five minutes, so the upload would die. I figured out how to make it work, by reserving a modest amount of power for future use, along with some tweaks to allow for short bursts of power. I put it all into practice, and it worked, and we decided to try to patent it.

Qualcomm, it turned out, had a process dedicated to patenting things, including staff council to make the patent filings. I sent my designs and drawings and explanations to the lawyers, tried to explain what I had done, and they bundled it all off and made the patent filings.

Then Qualcomm decided to restructure and laid me off. They didn't get around to filing for the patent until after my last day. They still needed me to sign the patent forms, so I did; then a few months later I got a mysterious deposit in my back account that turned out to be the patent filing bonus.

Then the patent sat in the Patent Office's inbox. Every couple of months I'd try to search for the patent but nothing came up.

Two weeks ago I received, in the mail, a letter congratulating me on my patent and inviting me to congratulate myself by buying one of their patent plaques. It emerged that the Patent Office had just issued the patent with my name right on the top -- and this company had watched the new patent filings and somehow figured out how to track me down where I lived to send me their ad.

I am now the proud recipient of US patent number 9,622,187; which makes me moderately proud of myself, and adds fodder for my resume, even as I worry generally about the role of patents in American innovation in 2017. (I do want a patent plaque, so I may yet end up buying my own just so I can post it on my wall.)

The only way you can compete against a monopoly is to change the rules on
which the game is played. It allows me to sleep at night knowing we
compete under different rules.
- Robert F. Young, RedHat's CEO