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Wireless E-Mail Patent: What Did NTP Know And When Did It Know It?

More evidence surfaced this past weekend suggesting that NTP, which last month received a $612.5 million patent-infringement settlement from BlackBerry provider Research In Motion, should never have been granted its wireless E-mail patents. The idea of wireless E-mail dates back to 1982, when it popped into the mind of high-school dropout Geoff Goodfellow, a one-time Silicon Valley entrepreneur. That's two decades before NTP won its first legal battle against RIM.
More evidence surfaced this past weekend suggesting that NTP, which last month received a $612.5 million patent-infringement settlement from BlackBerry provider Research In Motion, should never have been granted its wireless E-mail patents. The idea of wireless E-mail dates back to 1982, when it popped into the mind of high-school dropout Geoff Goodfellow, a one-time Silicon Valley entrepreneur. That's two decades before NTP won its first legal battle against RIM.Goodfellow's vision didn't involve wireless PDAs--they didn't exist in 1982--but pagers, according to an article published Sunday in The New York Times. Goodfellow did get financing for a wireless E-mail service in the early '90s, but the venture failed. In 1998, he moved to Prague and purchased a bar.

Goodfellow never patented his ideas, but he wrote about radio E-mail in 1982 on a popular Arpanet [the precursor to the Internet] mailing list called Telecom Digest in a note entitled "Electronic Mail For People On The Move," according to The Times. "Arpanet users [could] send messages to people on the MetaNet [an early pager] without having to run and find a terminal with a modem on it or go through the human dispatcher, i.e., so you can now do fun things like be driving down the road and have a message appear that says: 'You have new mail,' " Goodfellow wrote.

Do Goodfellow's posting and a few subsequent articles about his radio E-mail service constitute prior art that should have prevented the Patent Office from issuing NTP its patents? NTP might have thought so because it paid Goodfellow $19,600 in consulting fees for a few days of work in 2002, which included meetings with NTP lawyers, the newspaper reports.

"I think there is a potential ethics issue," Mark Lemley, a Stanford professor who specializes in patent law, told The Times. "The basic key is the attorneys have the obligation to disclose everything they know about his prior artwork and make him available as a fact witness."