By JOHN MARKOFF
GEOFF GOODFELLOW is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who came up with an
idea that resulted in a $612.5 million payday. But he will never see a
penny of it. He remains little known even in Silicon Valley and,
perhaps most surprising, he doesn't really mind.
And herein lies one of the stranger tales about innovation and money
in the world of technology.
A high-school dropout, Mr. Goodfellow had his light-bulb moment in
1982, when he came up with the idea of sending electronic mail
messages wirelessly to a portable device -- like a BlackBerry. Only
back then, there was no BlackBerry; his vision centered on pagers. He
eventually did get financial backing to start a wireless e-mail
service in the early 1990's, but it failed.
So, in 1998, he moved to Prague and bought a bar. While he was there,
the BlackBerry did come along. Tending bar, he believed that everyone
had forgotten that he had initially come up with the idea of wireless
Almost everyone had, that is, except for James H. Wallace Jr., a
Washington lawyer for one of the companies involved in a patent
dispute over Mr. Goodfellow's invention.
Mr. Wallace represented NTP, a company aggressively defending its
patents for wireless e-mail. He flew to Prague two days after first
speaking to Mr. Goodfellow in early 2002 to introduce himself.
Mr. Goodfellow says that NTP was concerned that his earlier work might
undermine its patent claims, and the company wound up going to some
lengths to ensure that it did not. "I kind of had a big grin on my
face that someone had dug deep enough to find the person where it all
began," Mr. Goodfellow recalled. "He basically wanted to hear my
On a subsequent visit a year later, as Mr. Goodfellow remembers it,
Mr. Wallace introduced him to a travel companion by saying: "Geoff's
the inventor of wireless e-mail. My client patented some of its
Mr. Wallace, in an e-mail response to a reporter's questions, disputed
the quotation. But two things are certain. Mr. Goodfellow, an early
participant in Silicon Valley's grass-roots computer culture,
disdained the notion of protecting his ideas with patents. And Thomas
J. Campana Jr., a Chicago inventor with no such qualms, patented the
idea of wireless electronic mail almost a decade after
Mr. Goodfellow's original work.
Mr. Campana, who died in 2004, was a founder of NTP, and his patent
push yielded a bonanza for the company, which will receive $612.5
million in a settlement reached last month in its patent infringement
suit against Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry.
For legal and technology experts, the tale of Mr. Goodfellow's
pioneering work is evidence of the shortcomings of the nation's patent
system, which was created to reward individual creativity but has
increasingly become a club for giant corporations and aggressive law
Several legal experts suggested that Mr. Goodfellow's work might have
constituted important "prior art" -- earlier public information that is
relevant to a patent application -- that should have been disclosed to
atent examiners and the courts by both sides in the dispute.
"I think there is a potential ethics issue," said Mark A. Lemley, a
Stanford professor who specializes in patent law. "The basic key is
the attorneys have the obligation to disclose everything they know
about his prior artwork and make him available as a fact witness."
DESPITE what might have been, Mr. Goodfellow says he has no
regrets. His scorn for patents is widely shared by many innovators in
Silicon Valley, especially open-source software developers, whose
technology competes with products from companies like Microsoft. But
it remains a deeply divisive viewpoint.
"You don't patent the obvious," he said during a recent interview.
"The way you compete is to build something that is faster, better,
cheaper. You don't lock your ideas up in a patent and rest on your
The initial encounter with Mr. Wallace in Prague was only the
beginning of Mr. Goodfellow's indirect role in the BlackBerry
case. NTP, he says, seemed intent on neutralizing him as a
complication to its patent case.
NTP hired Mr. Goodfellow as a consultant; invoices show he was paid
$4,000 a day -- about $19,600 in all -- for several days' work in 2002,
including two trips to meet with lawyers in Washington. As part of a
formal contract, he signed a nondisclosure agreement, prohibiting him
from revealing any information or consulting with any other parties
during the period of the lawsuit.
At one meeting in Washington, when Mr. Goodfellow described his
technology at a white board in a conference room, Mr. Wallace insisted
that the other lawyers not take handwritten notes for fear of leaving
a paper trail, Mr. Goodfellow says. Another meeting, he says, focused
on which claims in NTP's patents were least likely to be compromised
by Mr. Goodfellow's prior work.
In an e-mail response to a reporter's question about NTP's contacts
with Mr. Goodfellow, Mr. Wallace maintained that Mr. Goodfellow was
retained because he had been mentioned in news articles from the early
1990's "regarding a product called RadioMail" -- his effort to
commercialize the wireless e-mail idea -- but that Mr. Goodfellow
"could not locate any documentation beyond these articles regarding
As it happens, he had documented his wireless e-mail concept even
In the early 1970's Mr. Goodfellow, then a teenager, was hanging out
at SRI International here, generally getting under foot until he was
hired in 1974 as an assistant computer operator in the laboratory of
the pioneering computer researcher Douglas C. Englebart.
By the early 1980's, the Arpanet, the computer network that preceded
the modern Internet, was being used by thousands of academics,
scientists and military officers -- and by Mr. Goodfellow, who realized
that it was possible to relay a mail message from the network to a
newfangled alphanumeric pager that had just been introduced by a
nearby company, Millicom, of Sunnyvale, Calif., which called its
In 1982, he published his idea on a widely read Arpanet mailing list
called Telecom Digest in a note titled "Electronic Mail for People on
The service, he wrote, "allows Arpanet users to send messages to
people on the MetaNet without having to run and find a terminal with a
modem on it or go through the human dispatcher, i.e., so you can now
do fun things like be driving down the road and have a message appear
that says: [YOU HAVE NEW MAIL]."
Mr. Goodfellow went on to become a founder of the world's second
commercial Internet company, Anterior Technology (later renamed
RadioMail), in his apartment here in 1986. Beginning in 1990, at
roughly the same time AT&T hired Mr. Campana to develop pager
technology into a wireless mail gateway,
Mr. Goodfellow set out to commercialize his idea, ultimately receiving
$3 million from financial backers such as Motorola.
RadioMail was introduced in 1991, and the next year Mr. Goodfellow
embarked on a partnership with Research in Motion, a Canadian company,
and Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications giant. But like a number
of Mr. Goodfellow's projects, RadioMail was ahead of its time, and he
left the company in 1996.
During the height of the Internet bubble, Mr. Goodfellow, a self-taught
software engineer, would speak caustically about the hype pervading
the era, referring to the surplus of "zero-billion-dollar industries."
He walked away from Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom without the
great wealth that it had afforded so many. But if he is miffed, it is
because so much of the history has been forgotten.
"I don't want to sound bitter," he said. "I'm overjoyed that what I
saw more than 20 years ago is now de rigueur."
Today, Mr. Goodfellow's invention and its fate are a curious but
significant footnote to the bitter patent battle between NTP, whose
only assets are the Campana patents, and Research in Motion, which has
come to dominate the market for wireless electronic mail handsets.
Although the NTP patents have been tentatively invalidated by the
United States Patent Office, a jury upheld NTP's infringement suit in
2002, and R.I.M. chose to settle the legal fight for fear of a federal
court injunction against its popular service.
And Mr. Wallace, the NTP lawyer, rejects the idea that Mr. Goodfellow's
work casts any further shadow over his client's patent claims.
Mr. Wallace said by e-mail that he was not aware of Mr. Goodfellow's
1982 article -- though Mr. Goodfellow says he described his 1982 work
in detail to NTP lawyers -- and that NTP's patent claims turn on
integration with a "destination computer," not a pager.
In any case, Mr. Wallace added, "the devil is in the details.
"Suppose I write something saying that teleportation is possible by
merely converting matter to energy, beaming the energy to a distant
location and reconverting energy back to matter," he said. "Does this
mean that my statements compromise the patents of the first person to
actually make such a system work? No patent attorney would argue such
Others take a different view. "The moral of the story is that for a
long time now the patent system has been misused," said Mitchell
D. Kapor, founder of the Lotus Development Corporation, the software
publisher, and an adviser to Mr. Goodfellow in the early 1990's. "If
it had been properly used, NTP would never have been issued its
patents, and they never would have had a basis to pursue a lawsuit
DURING the court case, R.I.M. and NTP wrangled over three earlier
developments: work by some University of Hawaii researchers; a
Motorola patent; and work by TekNow, a company in Phoenix. Mr.
Goodfellow's company and 1982 system were not mentioned. (R.I.M.
executives did not respond to telephone and e-mail requests for comment.)
Although his role went unnoticed both by the federal courts and patent
examiners, Mr. Goodfellow's invention is woven into the very fabric of
the Internet. The computer network assigns different addresses, known
as ports, now numbering more than 65,000, to different services like
electronic mail or the World Wide Web. To this day, Port 99 remains
set aside for Mr. Goodfellow's original brainstorm: pushing an
electronic mail message to a wireless pager.
Mr. Goodfellow sold his bar in Prague in 2004 and returned to Silicon
Valley to help his brother run an Internet photography business. He is
now back in the thick of innovation, serving as the chairman of a
start-up Eritrean company working on voice-over-Internet-protocol
In his spare time he volunteers as a disc jockey at KZSU, the Stanford
student radio station. He said his show, beat.net, is his way of
continuing to look for the technology edge.
"I'm really interested in the intersection of technology and
entertainment," said Mr. Goodfellow, who just turned 50. "These days
I'm still trying to spend my time doing new things."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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