Un­der­dog Down Un­der Aus­tralian in­ven­tor presses case against mighty Microsoft

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - D.M. FOX

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.”

ANDY PARKS/THE NORTH­ERN RIVERS ECHO AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Aus­tralian in­ven­tor Ric Richardson de­vel­oped anti-piracy soft­ware that en­abled man­u­fac­tur­ers to cre­ate a “tr y-be­fore-you-buy” ver­sion of their soft­ware.

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