CES 2012, as seen by engineers who went to the dark side

Many at CES 2012 will be looking at gadgets, oohing and aahing. A few, though, are there simply to see what patents might have been broken. This is their story.

LAS VEGAS--While teams of people worked through the night to get their booths looking pretty--or at least not pretty awful-- there were some who could lounge a little and be glad that all they had to do was sip a little wine.

Fortunately, I was allowed to be embedded with them--in the Iraq sense, you understand--in order to get an understanding of just how these devious minds saw CES 2012.

When I speak of these devious minds, I do not even think of Justin Bieber's management team. No, I bow in reverence to those whose jobs it is to read patents and then wander around CES in search of one that might have been transgressed.

Alright, I bow in angst as well as reverence, because I cannot imagine wandering around an aircraft hangar-sized collection of stalls in search of something new that might lead to something to sue.

CC ViNull/Flickr

But these gentlemen are patent experts who could happily trade their skills to the trolls or to companies who need to protect themselves from the trolls.

"Patent trolls don't read patents," explained Martin, a jovial man of many words. Patent trolls are often mere lawyers who think if they get close enough to something that can earn them money, they'll slap a lawsuit in there and see how it sticks.

The people who actually read the patents are engineers--engineers who went over to the dark side. Tonight I had dinner with two--Daniel, who seems to be the deity of all things mobile, and Martin, who delights in networks and semiconductors. (Of course those aren't their real names. These people are close to a lot of lawyers.)

They're here at CES to catch someone out. Or, perhaps, to warn someone of impending legal doom engendered by a patent that happened to be registered in, say, 2005.

I asked them if they really wandered around the halls of CES 2012 and examined everything--rather than, perhaps, get up late, have a leisurely breakfast, a first martini, and a flutter on Bust My Gut in the 12:30 at Philadelphia Park.

I misjudged them (a little). They're really serious about patents. They know patents. They spend "at least three days a week" reading patents.

Just imagine how good Hollywood movies would be if producers read scripts three times a week. (An idle thought. Producers can't read.)

How did these bizarrely engaging humans decide that reading patents was more interesting than the engineer's usual joy--building things?

"Engineers often only build things in theory. You can be working on one specific thing for many, many months or even years," explained Daniel. "Then that thing doesn't get produced. So you've done nothing."

Martin butted in: "Reading patents, coming here to CES, I feel like I'm learning all the time. And I'm dealing with things that are happening now. Really happening, as opposed to might never happen."

But isn't there something just slightly sleazy about this patent business? It seems as if companies such as Apple and Google are spending much of their time buying patents or making sure that others can't get hold of them.

I think these two know they're living and working in the gray area. But if you're an engineer who enjoys reading patents--as these two seem to--you can really get paid quite well. Which tends to add, one suspects, to the enjoyment.

I wondered whether they expected to find something new (and sue-able) among the latest ultrabooks, ultra-thin phones, and ultra-ambitious other gadgets that might be littered about the thousands of CES booths.

They began to shake their heads. Then Daniel said: "But you never know, do you?"

After a fine dinner at Jose Andres' Jaleo, did they slink off to bed, in order to be fresh for their morning's sleuthing of phone designs and other fancy stuff?

Not quite. They were off to the craps table.

Because you never know, do you?

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