Underdog Down Under Australian inventor presses case against mighty Microsoft
ADELAIDE, Australia | Passing Ric Richardson on the street, you might not give him a second glance. The portly, bespectacled, 47-year-old Australian with the tousled hair and bushy eyebrows certainly doesn’t look like a technological gladiator or an inventive genius. But he is both.
The anti-piracy software that he invented and patented is at the center of an epic legal seesaw battle between Uniloc Corp., the small company he founded, and corporate giant Microsoft Corp.
Uniloc lost the first round in the patent-infringement suit that it filed in 2003 but won the second round in April, when an appeals jury ordered Microsoft to pay $388 million for “willfully and intentionally” stealing and using the software. On Sept. 29, a district judge in Rhode Island vacated the jury’s verdict, but an appeal of that decision is expected.
Describing himself as “shocked” by the decision, Mr. Richardson promises to continue the fight. “I haven’t come this far to hang up the gloves,” he said. “I will explore every opportunity.”
But characteristically, the Sydney-born inventor didn’t sound particularly downcast. “It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Just when I think the story is getting boring, something else comes up.”
Mr. Richardson has long tried to ensure that his story is not boring. After 12 years of living in California, he abandoned corporate life, turning the helm of his company over to associates and, with his wife, Karen, moved to Byron Bay, a small, uncommonly beautiful town on Australia’s east coast, north of Sydney.
“Karen and I,” he says, “set a cap, a limit on our lifestyle [. . . ] we don’t change who we are and we don’t fall into the trap of upping our lifestyle depending on how much money is available, but we focus on other, more valuable matters.”
Returning home was Mr. Richardson’s way of taking care of some of those more valuable matters, like his wife’s happiness and his health, which had deteriorated as a result of stress and nonstop work.
“Karen is actually a country person,” he says, “and she really shrivels up a bit when she’s not around trees and greenery, and I need to be actively participating in some kind of physical activity two to three times a week. [. . . ] I went from Sydney, where I was surfing and bike riding, to the U.S. West Coast, where I had all that responsibility.”
Instead of an executive office, he now works out of a 2003 Ford Transit van he bought “cheap” at auction — his wife, who calls him Dick, has dubbed it the “Dickmo- bile” — moving it as the mood strikes him around a headland at Byron Bay.
“I’ve discovered”, he says, “that changing my location, what I’m looking at, and being in a fresh environment, kick-starts the process of looking at a problem in a new light.”
Mr. Richardson is an anomaly in the world of the successful. The son of a freelance cameraman, he never went to college, and he picked up his love of music (he plays the guitar) and a taste for sound technology as a teenager, running audio for his dad. By the time he was in his late 20s, he had become a music computer guru, developing software for synthesizers and programming sound for leading bands and artists, both in the U.S. and Australia.
The anti-piracy technology he invented, and Microsoft is accused of using, made it possible for manufacturers to create a “try-before-you-buy” version of their software. Upon purchase, a registration key, valid only for that computer, unlocked the full version of the software.
“I seem to be able to connect the dots a bit easier than most people in ways of using technology,” he says. “That seems to be my real gift.”
That gift has led to dozens of inventions and patents, starting with the Shade Saver, the cord that attaches glasses to the wearer, which financed, initially, surfing trips for Mr. Richardson and his brother — and then the launch of Uniloc.
He calls the decision to sue Microsoft “a necessary step” to fulfill his responsibility to Uniloc’s shareholders and staff and a natural “flow on” from the choice he made in 1992 to pay thousands of dollars to get the patent instead of making a deposit on a new house.
“The only problem when you make a decision like that,” he says, “is that it’s not only you who are holding your breath, it’s everybody who cares for you, depends on you and trusts your judgment.”
No longer encumbered with running his company, Mr. Richardson is trying to get fit again and has gone back to his real love — inventing. A veritable think factory, he’s working on a variety of projects, including Logarex, a logarithmic compression system that would radically reduce the size of exiting data on computers without loss of quality.
“To keep your integrity as an inventor,” he says, “the only way you can put your family through it, is that thousands of people will benefit from it.”
He has launched a blog (http://ricrichardson.blogspot.co m) and is helping other would-be inventors, speaking to many of them on the phone or answering their e-mails. “They have confidence,” he says, “that I’m not going to take their idea and steal it — that I can give them a bit of feedback about what needs to be done next.”
Although he is enjoying being back in Australia, Mr. Richardson wants to keep a foothold also in the U.S. Above all, he wants to maintain his perspective. “As soon as you start believing that you’re wonderful,” he says, “it gets in the way of what you’re inventing.”
Australian inventor Ric Richardson developed anti-piracy software that enabled manufacturers to create a “tr y-before-you-buy” version of their software.