Role Play on Intellectual Property Involving a Method for Data Compression
Following is a variant of the Alyssa P. Hacker role play.
There are some puns on names that students may recognize (e.g.,
"Lem El-Zif" sounds like "Lempel-Ziv," a standard text
compression scheme). The entire scenario is written in a
gender-neutral fashion, with androgynous names.
Terry Wong, UI undergraduate
Dr. Chris Cruz, Principal, Oak Grove South High School,
Robin D'Cradle, Esq., Managing Partner, Dewey, Cheatham
Professor Pat Patel, Director of the Intellectual Property
Office at UI
In 1994, UI researcher Lem El-Zif devised a novel data
compression method that handles both images and text for World
Wide Web pages. This method significantly speeds up the
transmission of pages across the Internet. The UI quickly
obtained a patent on the method, and assigned the patent to
American Digital and Telecommunications (AD&T) for
Terry Wong is a graduate of Oak Grove South High School and
a senior at UI. In an undergraduate computer science course, CS
224, Terry learned about the Lem El-Zif algorithm and wrote a
program that implemented the algorithm.
Last summer, Terry helped Oak Grove South set up a 'Web site
in its computer lab, which contains 14.4K modems that permit
full access to the Internet, including electronic bulletin
boards. Terry wrote several utility programs for people at the
school to use. One program, WebCompress, incorporated the Lem
El-Zif algorithm. Terry uploaded WebCompress to a national
electronic bulletin board, together with a note saying that the
program could be freely distributed. WebCompress has become
frequently used in many networks. Terry guesses that about
10,000 students, teachers, and others around the country are
using WebCompress to efficiently transmit 'Web pages, although
there is no way to know the exact number, because the program
is widely redistributed.
Last month, Terry got a phone call from Dr. Chris Cruz, the
principal at Oak Grove South. Dr. Cruz had just received a
letter from Dewey, Cheatham & Howe, claiming that the
widespread use of Terry's software infringes on the patent.
Dr. Chris Cruz, Principal Oak Grove South High School Oak
Dear Dr. Cruz:
We refer to a recent posting from your school on
comp.sys.web, "Announcing the initial release of WebCompress, a
public domain program for compressing WWW pages."
The algorithm used in WebCompress is commonly known as the
Lem El-Zif algorithm, which is protected by a patent. The
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has granted American
Digital and Telecommunications (AD&T) exclusive
sublicensing rights to the following patents registered in the
United States, and all of their corresponding foreign
Method for Compressing Images Integrated with Text on Web
Pages ("Lem El-Zif algorithm") No. 5,378,091
WE HEREBY PLACE YOU AND ALL USERS OF YOUR IMPLEMENTATION OF
THE LEM EL-ZIF ALGORITHM ON NOTICE THAT THEY ARE INFRINGING ON
THIS PATENT, AND WE RESERVE ALL OF OUR RIGHTS AND REMEDIES AT
Very truly yours, Robin D'Cradle, Esq. Managing Partner
Dewey, Cheatham & Howe
Dr. Cruz is worried. The school cannot keep track of who is
using Terry's program, and there is no money in the school
budget to pay for licensing fees.
Terry is extremely upset. In Terry's opinion, the program is
very simple, and people should be allowed to use it for free.
No one in CS 224 had mentioned that the algorithm was patented.
Terry contacts the CS 224 instructor, who refers Terry to the
campus's Intellectual Property Office (IPO), which is
responsible for negotiating all UI patent licenses.
Professor Pat Patel is Associate Vice Chancellor for
Research and Director of the IPO. Because UI has an obligation
to demonstrate that its licensing policies for
government-funded research are in the best public interest,
Professor Patel is anxious to defuse any potential conflict
arising from a UI license.
Professor Patel arranges a meeting. At this meeting, Terry,
Pat, Chris, and Robin will try to resolve the problem. If no
mutually agreeable solution is reached, a lawsuit is possible.
Preparing for the lawsuit would cost UI at least $50,000 in
legal fees, and going to court could cost over $1 million.
In preparing for the role play of the meeting, consider the
- What are the ethical issues in this case?
- What might each participant want from this meeting?
- What kinds of solutions might each participant find
acceptable or unacceptable?
- How should each participant initially approach each of
- How should each participant respond to each of those
This fictional case is a minor variation of a case based on
the patented RSA public-key cryptosystem. The latter case is
used in the course 6.001, Structure and Interpretation of
Computer Programs, at M.I.T.
Cite this page:
"Role Play on Intellectual Property Involving a Method for Data Compression"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Wednesday, December 11, 2013