Sunday, May 4, 2008

Something about me a normal Google won't find

At Portland Barcamp this weekend, I caught the tail end of a session on patents. I didn't know that Google has put all patents online. Sheesh! I gotta get out of my tracks and explore more. If you want to search for patents you go to Google and then hit the even more>> menu option at the bottom of the more menu. At the left you can see a light bulb icon beside "Patent Search" OK... so you just type "Colleen Dick" in the simple search bar and voila,

How do I happen to hold a patent? A long time ago I implemented cascading bandpass filters for speech on an embedded Texas Instruments speech chip --the same chip that powered the Speak 'n' Spell toy. We had to listen to this mechanical voice over and over to test it and we noted that it really messed up certain foreign-derived words that were not in its Exceptions Dictionary, particularly names. Particularly, the name of the founder of our company..... NOT good for demos!

We were laughing at the way the thing pronounced our founder's name one day at lunch. See the patent and use your imagination and you can figure out for yourself what the joke was. I said to my team, "we need to allow the user to add stuff to the exceptions dictionary." So we kicked around a few ideas. I thought about how you would architect it, and that afternoon I spec'd out a rough requirements document for it. It was almost a joke, because we knew our boss would never approve of building anything useful, and certainly nothing proposed by an engineer. We weren't in marketing. All product ideas have to come from marketing. That's the way corporations work. And marketing could not wrap their heads around this one.

That specs document languished on the file server for nearly a year. Meanwhile I was off on maternity leave and had not been to work for two or three weeks. What I didn't expect was a Saturday morning phone call at home from one of the company patent attorneys. When a lawyer phones YOU before you've even sucked down your first Joe of the day your first thought is I deny everything! But he was all about the audio editor specification. He informed me that the company was seeking a patent on it, and as per my conditions of employment all monetary benefits from it would be assigned to my employer, but as the original inventor/designer I would get the honor of having my name on the patent, I remembered having written it, had no trouble digging up the theory of operation (because to me it was obvious) and thinking it might be a good idea. He asked permission to drive over to my house immediately and interview me. Sheesh maybe he thought somebody else was trying to patent the same thing to do it that quickly on a Saturday! It must have been about a 60 mile trip for him, but there he was about an hour later. There in my humble dining room with my little baby, he asked me a number of more detailed questions about how the program worked etc. Based on that he wrote up and submitted the patent in legalese as you see it now.

Well of course I asked someone from my team what was going on. My work mates informed me that this new manager had come onboard and started poking around and found my spec. Furthermore, this manager was championing my audio dictionary editor, had found someone in marketing to determine that there was a need for this functionality, and had already allocated several members of his team to work to productize it. I thought great, cool. Why does everyone seem to dislike this guy?

I soon found out. Apparently this ambitious new manager had initiated the patent process on my phonemic editor. He had proposed himself listed as the inventor but the attorney had smelled a rat. I'm guessing the manager was not answering the questions like the real inventor would. My buds told me the lawyer had been snooping around in the cubes and asking people questions about it. They just produced my original document for him. The name on the document and the time stamp clinched it.

It took months, but when the patent finally came through, the patent attorney took great pleasure in visiting Cubeville and hand delivering a copy to that manager's desk. Nobody told him that his name had been rubbed out and replaced by mine (hehehehe) I wish I'd seen the look on his face when he opened that! Not another word was ever said about it; I received no recognition for it in the company (monetary or other,) but it certainly dresses up my resume!

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