Vringo CTO Ken Lang on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange
He may be the central figure in an intriguing patent suit against Google and a handful of other giants, but Ken Lang has remained in the background until now.
When I/P Engine (aka Innovate/Protect) filed its infringement suit last fall, he appeared only in court documents. He was the brainy Carnegie Mellon grad student who had patented search-engine methodology in the late 1990s with his buddy Donald Kosak and gone on to start a company and eventually become CTO of the once popular search engine Lycos. Lawyers are arguing about whether Google and others infringed on that patent for key components of their search technologies. But at a key hearing in Norfolk, Virginia, which we covered in June, Lang didn’t visit the federal courtroom. He made a cameo in a photo in the plaintiff's presentation. His patent filings (and his lawyers) did all the talking.
Yesterday was the closet thing to a coming-out party for the mystery man. If you watched the opening of the New York Stock Exchange on TV, you finally saw Ken Lang. That is, if you were paying attention. He was the quiet fellow in the dark shirt and suit standing off to the side, just out of reach of the button that purports to ring the bell (This bit of TV theater is automated, I was told). The edge of the spotlight suited Lang.
Last week, Vringo [VRNG] completed a merger with Innovate/Protect, the outfit that formed last year to acquire his patents from Lycos, bring him on board, and pursue the suit. Following the merger, the stock exchange tapped Vringo to ring the opening bell, Wall Street's equivalent of throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. In January, the six-year-old mobile tech company was trading for less than $1. Tens of thousands of shares, a trifle, were traded daily. But Vringo's involvement in the suit has turned heads. The stock price tripled. The trading volume is now typically more than two million shares. And as we reported in April, Mark Cuban became its biggest shareholder.
When Lang arrived today in the stock exchange's gilded boardroom shortly after 8 a.m., the suit, not surprisingly was off-limits. Lawyer's orders. Lang seemed relieved. He does't come across like someone who relishes mixing things up inside or outside a courtroom or dissecting the legal maneuverings. He seems to relish being a geek (his word). And surrounding himself with other geeks. What Lang could discuss (briefly) was his new job. He's Vringo's CTO.
If the six-year-old company is known for anything, it's for going after Google (as well as AOL, Gannett, IAC, and Target), not for its products. It makes clever mobile technology such as video ringtones. Vringo's service has more than 400,000 monthly subscribers and comes pre-loaded on the latest ZTE models. Facetones, Vringo's most popular product, displays a friend’s social media photos and status updates on a phone when that person calls; it's been downloaded more than a million times. Lang now oversees a development team based in Israel. It's a talented group, he said. He visited them earlier this year and is eager to collaborate on a major new project. "It's a platform I've wanted to do for five years," he said. What kind of platform he wasn't ready to say just yet. But he shared how his team will build it. They will recreate the stimulating culture he enjoyed at Carnegie Mellon. "You're batting ideas back and forth across the table like Ping-Pong," Lang said. "It's exciting."
Still, there's little doubt that Vringo is counting on his past work to pay off as well, either through a significant settlement from Google or, if the trial proceeds in October, through damages. Lang's patents, the complaint asserts, plays no small part in making Google's ad platform successful, a platform that generates much of its $37.8 billion in annual revenue. Lang's "fantastic intellectual property is the cornerstone of our business going forward," CEO Andrew Perlman told several dozen colleagues and family members at a private breakfast in the boardroom before the bell.
Vringo CEO Andrew Perlman addresses colleagues and their families before ringing the opening bell.
The June hearing, known as a Markman hearing, seemed to bode well for Vringo. At issue was the specific terminology in the 14-year-old patents; a broad or narrow definition affects the case for infringement. The judge ruled in favor of several of Vringo's definitions, and Google's legal team fired back with a "motion for reconsideration," asking the judge to take another look.
As Steve Lohr observed in the New York Times this week in a story about the Apple-Samsung battle, "Patent trials are part bombast, part boredom." The same can be said of the flurry of back-and-forth filings before a trial. It's also like following a sport without a scoreboard. "We’re close to trial, and we think we got a favorable Markman," offered Don Stout, who heads Vringo's intellectual property committee. Stout is a former U.S. Patent examiner and longtime Washington D.C. patent lawyer. He's best known for a case in which Research in Motion, the maker of Blackberry, agreed to settle with a patent holder for $612 million. That bonanza, and others such as the $1 billion in damages that a jury awarded Monsanto yesterday, fuel the hope of patent holders everywhere. Including Vringo.
After breakfast, Perlman, Lang, and several colleagues headed downstairs and assembled on the stone balcony overlooking the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. It was almost time, just shy of 9:30. Brokers began speed-walking to and fro. Under the glare of TV lights, Jim Cramer and his CNBC colleagues sat in their trading-floor studio looking over notes. In the next moment, Perlman and Vringo chairman Seth Siegel reached for the button. Lang and the others burst into applause. Their family members on the floor below joined in along with the traders. The bell was clanging, forceful and urgent, like the one that propels boxers into the center of the ring.
Poor Mark Cuban. He missed all the fun.
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