Inventor Ric Richardson is a no-bull, unassuming Aussie, but when Microsoft pinched his big idea, he took on the software behemoth ... and won. Jane Cadzow meets an unlikely giant-slayer.
The phone rang early, rousing Ric Richardson from a fitful sleep. As the sun rose over the northern NSW coast, he sat on his verandah and absorbed the news that a jury on the other side of the world had awarded him half a billion dollars. "I didn't really feel like celebrating," he remembers. "I just felt like breathing for a while."
Richardson is the Australian inventor who took on Microsoft and won. In April 2009, a United States court found the giant software corporation had used his technology without his knowledge or permission, and ordered Microsoft to pay compensation of $US388 million (then worth more than $530 million). The award was one of the highest in US patent history.
As it turned out, Richardson was right to keep the cork in the champagne bottle - the verdict was overturned five months later. But early this year, an appeals court upheld the original jury's decision that Microsoft had infringed his patent. He was vindicated, though still didn't feel like throwing a party. "I was just very relieved," he says.
Richardson, 49, has a friendly, round face, dark-rimmed glasses and blue eyes. Friends and colleagues speak in awe of his prodigious intelligence but the sheer size of him is what you notice first - his nimble brain is trapped inside a lumbering body that tips the scales at close to 180 kilograms. When we meet at a smart Byron Bay resort, he is wearing a navy T-shirt so enormous it could probably accommodate Bill Gates and the entire Microsoft board. While he talks, he perches on the edge of his seat, as if afraid his full weight might be too much for it. Though gregarious and good-humoured, he has the slightly apologetic air of one who knows he takes up more space than he should.
We order coffee. When it arrives, Richardson glances at his cup in mild surprise - he asked for a cappuccino and this is a long black. "It's all right," he tells the waitress. "No worries."
A few minutes later, she returns with a froth-covered replacement and plonks it on the table. "I'm sure you said long black," she says coolly.
"No worries," he repeats, beaming with gratitude. "Thank you."
The innovation that prompted the legal battle is an elegant method of deterring software piracy - essentially, a system of locking software titles to individual machines so they can't be illegally copied. But Richardson isn't just a computer geek: over the years, he has produced blueprints for everything from optical-fibre fingerprinting to a home-based hydro-electric scheme and a toothpaste tube that can be squeezed to the last drop. A problem-solver, he likes to call himself. "Because that's what invention is. Solving a problem before everybody else."
The Microsoft saga isn't over yet. The appeals court ruled that the jury had erred in calculating the damages payment, so a new trial will decide the amount due to Richardson and Uniloc, the company he founded. But he says he isn't hanging on that result. "The fact that they have been found guilty is the most important thing from my perspective. A lot of people think this is all about some big settlement, but no, it isn't. This case was about a lot more than money."
Besides, he and his wife, Karen, are hardly big spenders. Even when the half-billion was in the offing, their most extravagant purchase was a new hen house for the rural block they rent in the Byron Bay hinterland. Their five pet chooks - Blanche, Hilda, Edie, Bev and Noddy - now have fancy premises close to the converted stable that serves as Richardson's office. Perhaps too close.
When I visit, he admits that since he moved to the country, creative solitude has been harder to find than he expected. The stable's former occupant, a horse called Oscar, keeps sticking his head in the window and watching him work. If the door is left open, the hens wander in. Once, during a conference call to a roomful of lawyers in Boston, he realised the line had gone very quiet. "I'm thinking I must have lost the connection. I said, 'Hi, guys. Are you there?' " In response, an American voice asked hesitantly if that was clucking they could hear in the background.
When Richardson is immersed in a project that requires total concentration, he squeezes behind the wheel of his second-hand Ford Transit van and rattles along rural lanes until he finds a secluded spot. Then he parks under a tree, climbs into the back and lets his grey cells go to work. "It's not real homey," he says of his mobile thinktank. "Just a desk and a chair." But that's fine with him - more than fine. The whole point of the exercise is to get away from distractions. No personal paraphernalia, no people and no poultry. Perfect.
Richardson grew up in Sydney, the eldest son of a Four Corners cameraman who also worked as a stringer for ABC news. From the age of about 10, he was pressed into service as his father's assistant and sound recordist, leaping out of bed in the small hours to help load equipment into the station wagon before racing off with him to fires, car crashes and other disasters. He loved it. Apart from the adrenalin rush, there was the satisfaction of walking into the newsroom with a story in the can and the knowledge that his contribution had been useful.
Richardson sometimes thinks modern children could do with less cosseting and more exposure to the real world. "It's so fantastic when you are around adults who let you be a kid but also take you seriously," he says. "Looking back, it gives you tremendous confidence."
Moonlighting as a news hound meant he missed quite a bit of school, which didn't bother anyone unduly. "Our family was very much self-educating," he says. When he was 12, his parents took him and his younger brother on a year-long overseas holiday. Before his final exams at 18, he and his father spent several months making a documentary in Western Australia. Nevertheless, he graduated from Sydney's Hunters Hill High with good marks.
"He was always thinking so many steps ahead of everybody else," says musician Steve Cox, who has been a close friend since both were teenagers. Cox had just migrated from the US when they met, and vividly recalls the warmth of Richardson's welcome. "He was really outgoing and just so Australian in a Steve Irwin type of way: 'How ya going, mate?' It was almost more than I could handle at the time. Because he was always big - twice the size of everybody else - with bright blue eyes and this crazy haircut. One of those bowl cuts ... I think his mum used to cut their hair."
Richardson still has a knockabout manner and accent. When testifying at one of the Microsoft hearings, he jokingly asked examiners from the US patent office if they needed an interpreter. But the truth is, flat vowels aren't the reason he sometimes has difficulty getting his message across. When he listens to recordings of himself, he is dismayed by his tendency to leap from one subject to another, leaving out words and skipping over connecting sentences. "When your mind is working really fast, you've got to stop and pronounce things properly because you don't explain yourself clearly," he says. "When I get excited, I become quite incoherent."
He looks at me. "Have you sensed it a bit when we've been talking?"
Richardson's conversation can occasionally be a little hard to follow, if only because some of his subject matter is so esoteric. At one point, he tries to explain Logarex logarithmic compression, which he describes on his website as a new data-compression method "based on numeric reduction of number string lengths using conversion of data to numerics and then to a series of logarithms that in turn represent a shorter (i.e. compressed) representation of the original number".
Huh? What I manage to glean is he has patented the concept, which he believes has the potential to transform the computer industry by reducing the size of stored digital data by up to 98 per cent.
He knows many are sceptical. "I've had all kinds of mathematicians and other experts telling me that it might be possible, but not in my lifetime," he says. People told the Wright brothers the same thing about their flying machine, of course, but Richardson admits Logarex is a huge challenge. "Whenever I get into it, I end up having days of migraines. It's very hard to do."
The American inventor Thomas Edison described genius as one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. For Richardson, though, there is relatively little sweating over the drawing board - his big ideas tend to come to him speedily, slipping into his consciousness when least expected. Karen suggests this is because her husband's brain never stops ticking over. "He can't help himself," she says. "He invents in his sleep."
It sometimes seems to her that he exists on a different plane: "He doesn't get the physical realm. He lives in his head." Many practical, day-to-day details elude him. "He actually looks bewildered about things a lot of the time. Like, where to get a water glass."
Karen, 45, is a warm and exuberant person, as earthy as Richardson is cerebral. "There was a point there," he says, "when Kaz would make fun of me for being, you know, a nutty professor." But on the whole, they have happily put up with one another's foibles since they met 15 years ago, when he gave her a lift to a mutual friend's party. "He's unusual and intense but we get on really well," says Karen, who is the animal lover in the partnership. When she phones from Richardson's office one afternoon, we end up chatting about chooks - specifically, their high fatality rate. Pythons and the dog next door have accounted for 10 of her brood, among them such favourites as Joyce, Dot, Fay and Nancy. "I always bury them in the vegetable garden or somewhere they'll be useful," she says. "Unless, of course, they're in the python's stomach. Then off they go with the python."
Karen is the first to admit that theirs is not a conventional household. "It's like a circus here, with the pets," she says, pointing out that Oscar the horse sometimes ambles into the kitchen and helps himself from the fruit bowl. Richardson once woke to find a hen staring him in the face. "He puts up with a lot," she says of her husband. "He's a very likeable man, very genuine." A pause. "Here comes the horse. I'll just open the window - he wants to say something. Hello, Oscar! You big sausage!"
For much of Richardson's youth, he basically wanted to be Jimi Hendrix. Years of obsessive practice turned him into a more than competent electric guitarist - but "I could never get his loosey-goosey feel", he says, still a bit crestfallen. "I was too uptight and Caucasian for that." Since he couldn't be a thin, black rock god and had no alternative career in mind, nor any interest in going to university, he spent a while drifting between casual jobs: window washing, garbage collecting, guitar teaching. Then in 1982, when he was 20, he got his hands on a Commodore 64, one of the newfangled home computers. And everything fell into place.
Before long, he was one of Australia's leading computer music specialists, working with bands such as INXS and Mental as Anything. He moved into software distribution with his old friend Steve Cox, and mulled over ways to improve the sales system. What if partially disabled "demo" software could be switched into fully functioning mode when the user phoned to pay for it? Come to that, what if the software could be deactivated again if illegally copied to another computer? "You should be able to turn it on and off," he remembers thinking. "So how do you do that?"
He already had two inventions under his belt: the Shadesavers sunglasses cord, dreamed up and sold by him and his brother, and an extendable pole for washing apartment-block windows. The new project was obviously more complicated but he threw himself into it with gusto. "He wasn't a programmer but he had a fantastic mind for connecting the dots," says Cox, who watched in amazement as Richardson worked day and night, filling a whiteboard and reams of drawing paper with scribbled arrows and diagrams. "He was saying, 'We can do this and this and this!' And within a week or two, the thing was fleshed out."
Richardson was confident he was onto something big: "I knew it could change the software industry." Still, he hesitated about applying for a patent. "I thought, 'Am I really going to go out there and try to prove I'm the only guy in the world who's ever done this?' " In the end, he decided he had little choice. "I didn't want to look back in 10 years and say, 'What a gutless nong, not having a go.' "
His software-activation system was patented in 1992 and immediately attracted interest. "There were a few offers of several million to buy the idea outright at the beginning," says Cox, then a partner in the venture, "but he never really considered that at all. He's never been in it for the money. I think he's always been in it for the excitement of getting an idea out there and seeing it work."
Richardson wanted to develop and market the technology, so he set up Uniloc and went looking for financial backing. Cox says he disarmed corporate types with his sincerity and enthusiasm. "They could see that he was just a really good guy. That got him in a lot of doors." But the enterprise stalled in Australia, and in 1997 Richardson decided to try his luck in the US, moving to California with his new wife Karen and her seven-year-old daughter, Lily.
According to Cox, who had opted out by then, it was a case of do or die: "When Ric went to Los Angeles, he had a lot of personal debt because he had thrown everything into it. His family had thrown a lot of their life savings into it, too." Richardson says he and Karen were so skint they flew to LA via Manila and Seoul, taking twice as long as necessary, in order to save $300 on airfares.
The gamble paid off. Within a few years, he had secured major new investors and built Uniloc into a substantial business, with dozens of employees and impressive headquarters. The trouble was, he didn't really enjoy running the company; more than anything, he wanted to be left alone to invent. So he started spending more time at home and less in the CEO's suite. "This is so typical," Cox says. "He had 40 people working in the big glass tower down the road but his office was in his garage. Which he'd set up as, you know, a lab."
In Australia, Richardson had been an outdoors person - he enjoyed swimming, riding dirt bikes, playing tennis. Though nowhere near sylphlike, he managed to stay about 125 kilograms. In the US, he exercised less, ate more - and ballooned. "The chief function of the body is to carry the brain around," said Thomas Edison. But Richardson's body became so bloated he couldn't walk without puffing. His health eventually deteriorated to the point where he knew he had to do something.
Karen was heartily sick of Los Angeles - the materialism, the superficiality, the smog, the general hideousness. And Uniloc was firmly on its feet, no longer requiring Richardson's presence. So in late 2008, they packed their bags and came home.
Okay, he hasn't lost much weight, but Richardson has good intentions. "The whole idea is to get back into healthy living," he says, outlining his plan to start surfing each morning as soon as he has had laser surgery on his eyes. His vision is so poor - he blames computer screens - that he can't tell where waves are going to break. "And if you're in the wrong place, you just look like a dork. I keep getting left behind."
One of his close friends is Herb Elliott, chairman of Fortescue Metals Group and one-time world champion runner. While Richardson envies Elliott's slim build ("He's a gazelle!"), Elliott marvels at his big mate's mental agility. The former athlete says that when he and his wife bought a new car, they got a puncture in the first week. "But there was no light to tell us we had a flat tyre until it was right down to the rims. We just happened to mention this to Ric: 'Isn't it ridiculous when you've got a car with all the mod cons but it doesn't tell you your tyre's deflating?' "
Next thing he knew, Richardson had come up with a simple system of alerting drivers to a loss of tyre pressure without the need for electronic sensors. Elliott was so impressed that he arranged for Richardson to go to Western Australia to cast his eye over Fortescue's vast iron-ore-mining operation. Sure enough, he came back with a plan to boost its efficiency: a roll-on roll-off "rail-trucker" network in which ore-carrying trucks would effectively double as light-rail vehicles. "A very interesting concept," says Elliott. "If it works, it would save a huge amount of money and wear and tear on trucks. So yes, we're very interested in that."
When not advising Fortescue or absorbed in his own projects, Richardson helps other inventors. Apart from establishing a website to put them in touch with investors and marketers, he is negotiating to produce a TV program that would be less like the ABC's New Inventors than a tinkerer's version of Antiques Roadshow - people would bring inventions, rather than family heirlooms, for appraisal.
Although he retired as Uniloc chairman soon after returning to Australia, he still owns more than 10 per cent of the company. And Uniloc is on the warpath - since the initial victory over Microsoft, it has sued more than 100 software makers for unauthorised use of its anti-piracy system, among them Sony America, Activision Blizzard and Adobe Systems. Richardson says about 25 so far have settled and struck licensing deals. (The patent expires in 2013.)
Bill Gates's company had the chance to buy a licence 14 years ago, when first shown the Uniloc software. It was after Microsoft declined, then introduced a remarkably similar anti-piracy system, that Richardson alleged his patent had been infringed. In the Sydney office of law firm Clayton Utz, partner Jim FitzSimons says intellectual-property specialists are waiting with interest to see how much the revised damages payment differs from the original $US388 million. "The betting is the number will be much smaller," says FitzSimons, who is a friend of Richardson's and the person who convinced him to patent the technology in the first place. "That may be the case or it may in fact be a larger number." Either way, he doubts the inventor will make many changes to his life: "I don't think he fancies himself on a yacht pulling into Monaco or anything like that."
Richardson confirms he has no grand plans: "We're just hoping it's going to be enough that we get to give a chunk away. We've set a limit on what we would take for ourselves. There are better things to be doing with money than upping your lifestyle." Karen hopes to buy some cleared land and replant it with trees. "Then I'd like to help lower-income friends by putting them on the land as caretakers. They could live there rent-free."
On a more frivolous note, she might take the opportunity to decorate the hen house. "I was going to put curtains in it and paint it, put a fake TV in there," she says. Nothing wrong with upping the chooks' lifestyle, surely.
This article first appeared in Good Weekend.