While I always follow the big patent battles, the recent ugly fight between Verizon and Vonage has been of interest to me for more than just its implications in the broader patent fight.
That’s because for a while now I’ve been a very happy customer of Vonage’s VOIP service. I use its lower-tier basic service, which for under $20 a month provides 500 minutes of calls (which I’ve never come even close to reaching) along with multiple features such as caller-ID and three-way calling that POTS providers like Verizon all charge extra for.
So besides my normal position against companies that use patents to stifle innovation and crush pesky competitors (which is definitely the case in this fight), I’m following this patent battle because I don’t want to lose a service that I like.
For the record, I don’t believe that Vonage will get shut down completely. No judge will all of a sudden shut down the phones and 911 access of more than two million people.
But even if Vonage wins its appeals and eventually gets the Verizon patent claims thrown out, the fight is bleeding the company very badly. Whether Vonage will survive as it is remains very much in doubt.
A large number of people think that part of Verizon’s goal is to take over Vonage itself. Others think some other major company will jump in and acquire Vonage. We’ll see. Though I can say with certainty that if I once again become a Verizon phone customer, I’ll be looking for other options right away.
On the larger patent side, this case illustrates one of the more frustrating aspects of patent claims, namely that patent holders can (and often do) go after customers of products rather than the vendors that make the products (and are assumedly directly infringing the patent). From everything I’ve seen, it appears that Vonage is using all commercial products to run its VOIP infrastructure, probably from major vendors like Cisco.
Doesn’t it make more sense for patent law to center around the other inventers and companies making products that violate the patents, rather than the customers who in good faith bought a product?
Even if we don’t see some of the major patent reform that is desperately needed, a good small step in reform would be to limit the ability for patent holders to go after customers of technology and limit claims to only those companies actually making products that violate a patent. We’ll see. But if it happens don’t call me, I’ll call you (though I might have to borrow someone else’s phone).