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Originally published Sunday, August 29, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Brier Dudley

Allen's patent lawsuit is all about his legacy

Something's up with Paul Allen. His bombshell Friday — a lawsuit against Apple, Google, Facebook and others for patent infringement...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Something's up with Paul Allen.

His bombshell Friday — a lawsuit against Apple, Google, Facebook and others for patent infringement — was just the latest symptom.

I'm convinced the lawsuit is about more than money. It's about building his legacy, in more ways than one.

Allen was treated for a recurrence of cancer last November, finishing the treatment earlier this year.

A spokesman said Allen "has no medical issues in front of him and he is back in full swing."

When you go through that sort of thing, you get your affairs in order. You think about what you'll leave behind if things go south, and you wonder how you'll be remembered.

It's an odd time to haul your billionaire tech pals into court. Not too long ago — in early 2009 — Allen was publicly wishing Steve Jobs luck with his medical problems.

Allen's spokesman insisted Friday that the lawsuit isn't happening because Allen needs the money.

Just last month the 57-year-old bachelor pledged most of his $13 billion fortune to charity. He has been a huge supporter of nonprofit groups, the arts and scientific research, especially in the Northwest.

But at the same time, he's been more aggressively monetizing assets he has piled up, before he began moving down the "world's richest" list. Just five years ago Forbes listed him, at $22 billion, as the third-richest person in America, behind Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Since then Allen's biggest investment, St. Louis-based cable company Charter Communications, went bankrupt.

Last year the Forbes list put him at 17, well below the Google guys, Michael Dell and even Steve Ballmer, who held onto most of his Microsoft stake.

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In the meantime, Allen is selling his 303-foot yacht.

He subdivided the Experience Music Project, squeezing in a science-fiction museum. He trimmed and then sold companies, such as Kirkland set-top maker Digeo.

In Seattle, Allen is squeezing every leasable square foot out of the South Lake Union properties he bought eons ago for a city park.

Now he's decided to make the most of four patents filed from 1996 to 2000 by Interval Research, a think tank in Palo Alto, Calif., he bankrolled until the dot-com collapse.

If Allen wins, the payoff could conceivably be $500 million, $1 billion, or more. It could even result in licensing deals that funnel money to his holding company or charitable foundation into the future.

The timing is unusual.

Allen's spokesman, David Postman, said attorneys were asked to review the patents "years ago."

"We're to the point of reviewing the portfolio and seeing at the same time if technology in the marketplace has caught up with where Interval was," he said.

More enlightening was a conversation I had Friday with a patent expert, Christopher Cotropia, of the University of Richmond in Virginia.

Cotropia was surprised when I mentioned that Allen's lawsuit was announced with a news release. Usually patent-licensing deals are quieter. Companies often reach settlements before any lawsuits are filed, or they make licensing deals that draw little attention.

"The one thing about filing a court case is it creates a public record — it's a public statement," Cotropia said.

Even if Allen loses, the lawsuit told the world that Allen funded early research into the sort of technology used by Apple, Google, Facebook and others.

The 15-page suit, filed in federal court in Seattle, calls out Google in particular, mentioning that Interval supported research by Google's founders and collaborated with them when they were still at Stanford. This is mentioned where the history of Interval is presented, not where the patent violations are listed.

Interval, the suit says, "evolved into one of the preeminent technology firms. It employed over 110 of the world's leading scientists, physicists, and engineers, and was at the forefront in designing next-generation science and technology."

"A lot of times the complaints try to tell stories," Cotropia explained. "You read the complaint and he's talking about how this company was created.... He gets to tell this story of 'how we were early pioneers.' "

In other words, the lawsuit has called out otherwise obscure work that Allen bankrolled in the dawn of the Web era.

What more could Allen — a lifelong bachelor — want at this point in his life than to be known as a visionary who contributed to the success not just of Microsoft but of Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo and others?

A Super Bowl victory for his Seahawks or an NBA title for his Trail Blazers would also be nice, but you can only hold your breath so long.

Suing today's most respected tech companies is an unusual path to take. Allen must have decided that it's worth ruffling feathers today to secure a certain position in the history book.

Cotropia said the lawsuit could be about "attribution."

He said it best:

"There's definitely a personal story here."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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