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The South Korean government is a patent troll

Browse the US Patent and Trademark Office’s online database long enough and you’re bound to come across the vague filings assigned to even more vaguely-named entities that provide the fodder for the intellectual property battles keeping the tech industry up at night. But one of the latest additions to that dishonorable pile deserves some special attention.

The application provides little reason for suspicion at first glance, with the legalese at the top of the document that’s supposed to pass as a summary actually managing to convey something in the way of an explanation: Detailed in the filing is a bio-identification mechanism for wearables, we’re told, later specified as smart glasses. The real nature of the matter is  only revealed when you scroll down.

Filling the “Assignee” field is the Seoul-based Intellectual Discovery, also known as South Korea’s unofficial patent hoarding agency. Mind you, it doesn’t advertise itself as such. The only tangible record of its activities is a two-year-old Reuters exposé that reveals an outfit ostensibly founded to protect local firms from litigation but involved in the very practices it seeks to check.

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Which makes the new authentication application particularly alarming. If approved, the patent will grant Intellectual Discovery the rights to using biometric information such as wearer’s facial features or eyes for several different purposes, most notably authentication. That’s the kind of functionality you can expect to see in every brand of smart glasses once adoption reaches a level where practicalities like secure login need to be addressed.

In other words, perfect lawsuit material. In the likelihood that the USPTO will fulfill its request,  Intellectual Discovery could sit on the patent until the wearable trend reaches that stage of its evolution and mount a multi-pronged legal assault against manufacturers. Or, much more likely, the outfit may simply sell the rights to the highest bidder.

That’s what Intellectual Discovery did with an earlier patent for retinal eye scan technology bought from Singaporean chipmaker Avago Technologies, which Reuters revealed was sold to Google for $100,000. Regardless of what happens, though, the end result will be more or less the same.

Whoever owns the patent when the opportunity grows ripe will use the rights to their full advantage, at the expense of manufacturers that will need to compromise on  their users’ privacy, pay hefty licensing fees or go to court. That’s admittedly nothing new, but Intellectual Discovery’s involvement adds a geopolitical element to the game that could make patent litigation even more unpleasant than it is now.

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