Amid the waves of high-tech progress, an ominous new phenomenon has emerged: the "submarine patent." As the name implies, critics say, such patent claims sneak in undetected and could effectively torpedo technological innovation.

The pattern is ominous: A technology such as streaming video or voice over the internet becomes popular and is widely adopted by schools, colleges, businesses, and consumers. Shortly after this technology becomes widespread and firmly entrenched, an obscure company fires off a letter from its attorneys claiming to own the rights to the underlying technology. Usually, the ownership claims are challenged. Lawsuits are filed


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