A Big Blue Point for the Little Guy
When inventor Jeff Conklin took on IBM in a patent dispute, the tech behemoth played hardball, then blinked
APRIL 5, 2006
By Steve Hamm
Sometimes the little guy wins -- or at least walks away with a settlement. Boston
inventor Jeff Conklin, who holds patents on technology for business-to-business Web
sites, announced Apr. 4 that he had reached a settlement in a long-running dispute
with IBM (IBM ). "I want to encourage
others with vision to stick it out," says Conklin, whose one-man company, Sky
Technologies, battled Big Blue since 2003. "You can beat the biggest and the baddest."
Conklin had accused IBM of patent infringement, breach of contract, and
misappropriation of trade secrets. Under the settlement terms, IBM agreed to license
Sky's technology, which allows buyers and sellers of goods to negotiate, exchange
information about products, and order samples online. Financial terms weren't
disclosed. The case was settled over a month ago, just days before a trial was to
begin on Mar. 14.
IBM confirmed the settlement, but wouldn't give its reasons. "It's over," says an IBM
spokesman. "IBM didn't admit any wrongdoing." The company is known for rarely settling
PATENT CONCERNS. Conklin had already won settlement of a related case
against supply-chain software maker i2 Technologies, and the IBM outcome strengthens
his hand if he presses similar claims against other companies. He's represented by Max
Tribble of Susman Godfrey, a Texas law firm with many IP victories notched on its
belt. "This is a vindication that Sky has real intellectual property that's valuable,
and says that anybody who infringes against its patents does so at their own risk,"
The settlement comes against the backdrop of increasing scrutiny of technology patents
issued by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, as well as the companies that amass
patents in hopes of extracting licensing fees. On Mar. 29, the Supreme Court heard
arguments in a case pitting online marketplace giant eBay against small-fry
MercExchange (see BW Online, 3/30/06, "eBay Takes on the Patent
That followed the settlement between Research In Motion (RIMM ), the maker of the popular BlackBerry wireless e-mail
device, and a small company that claimed ownership of crucial technology used in the
devices. Critics have charged that USPTO procedures for awarding software patents are
flawed, and they're calling for an overhaul of the agency (see BW Online, 1/13/06, "A Code Catalog for Software
DIGITAL PIONEER. Conklin's patents seem to be on solid ground, however.
While IBM challenged them in court, it says it didn't take its case against them to
the USPTO. The patents include systems for online negotiations and data-sharing. A
friend of Conklin's who's a corporate litigator says this was an unusual case. "This
is one of those rare stories of the inventor finally getting his due," says Turner
Smith of the New York firm of Curtis Mallet Prevost Colt & Mosle. "IBM and other big
tech companies are prone to fight these kinds of claims, and they have deep pockets.
It's unusual for an inventor to have the resources and dedication to prevail."
Conklin is no ordinary inventor. From 1979 to 1993, he was a legal counsel and
technology strategist for Digital Equipment. Among other things, he structured and
negotiated the first 64-bit semiconductor licensing agreements. He later co-founded a
technology M&A advisory firm before starting TradeAccess. In 1996, he and the outfit's
engineers came up with core technologies for online marketplaces. The company's name
was later changed to Orzo and then Sky Technologies.
In the late 1990s, online marketplaces were all the rage, and many tech companies were
building marketplace software. However, by late 2000, the air was going out of the
dot-com bubble, and Sky was struggling to stay in business. According to Conklin's
lawsuit, Sky and IBM began talking about a licensing agreement -- and an investment by
IBM. In the summer of 2001, Sky showed some of its intellectual property to IBM.
WORST DAY. Then, suddenly, the deal was off. On Aug. 1, Joel Farrell, a
software architect for IBM, called and left a message on Conklin's voice mail telling
him IBM had decided not to make the investment. According to a recording of the
voicemail heard by BusinessWeek Online, he left open the possibility that IBM might
still license the technology. He called the technology "strategic" but said IBM was
concerned about the risks of investing in Sky.
IBM never called back, according to Conklin's suit, but negotiation technology later
showed up in the company's WebSphere software. The suit claimed that IBM
misappropriated information it had gleaned from Sky during the discussions.
Conklin describes the day of Farrell's call as the worst of his life. "I never heard
from them again," he says. "It was a bitter pill to swallow." Because Sky was out of
money and wouldn't be getting a cash infusion from IBM, Conklin had to fire the
company's 45 employees -- without any severance benefits. During the company's
liquidation, its venture capitalists took ownership of the patents. Conklin later
bought them back, and spent the next four years pressing his case.
BATTLING ON. He describes it as a torturous experience. IBM's outside
attorneys deposed him for 94 hours over 20 days. "It was hell on earth. It was an
inquisition. They accused me of lying, fabricating, and misrepresenting. They kept
pounding on [my] company being a failure," he says. "It's a technique you would use to
break somebody's spirit. It's unconscionable."
IBM denies that it looked at Sky's technology secrets. The spokesman says he doesn't
believe there were any further discussions with Conklin after the message breaking off
discussions. He denies that IBM's lawyers treated Conklin unfairly during the
deposition process. Typically, in depositions of this type, different people from each
side handle different parts, he says. In this case, Conklin himself answered all of
the questions. "They could have selected other people, but they chose him," the
After the settlement, Conklin rewarded himself with an eight-day skiing vacation in
Utah. He plans on pressing his cases against other tech companies and, perhaps,
writing a book about his experiences.
"I believe in innovation and entrepreneurship, and think it's in short supply these
days," Conklin says. In cases like this, the plaintiff gets the last word.
Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York