Editor’s note: This story appears in our June 2009 issue.
For nearly 20 years, Ronald J. Riley has been a crusader for inventors, attacking invention-promotion companies, law firms and others on countless Internet blogs and on his collection of Web sites.
(He’s also prone to e-mail assaults. At one point he threatened to post every e-mail exchange he’s had with the editor and the publisher of Inventors Digest if the magazine published this story.)
“When it comes to invention-promotion fraud,” Riley said in one e-mail to Inventors Digest, “it would be an understatement to say that I am inflexible.”
An ongoing trademark-infringement lawsuit filed late last year accuses Riley of misleading inventors and misusing a law firm’s trademark to divert traffic and boost donations to Riley’s nonprofit, InventorEd.org.
Riley strongly refutes the accusations.
He operates several complaint or “sucks” sites against companies, including one against John Dozier’s Dozier Internet Law, based in Glen Allen, Va. Riley established the site after Dozier sent cease and desist letters to inventor advocates, including Riley, for criticizing one of Dozier’s invention-promotion clients.
Dozier has a history of sending cease and desist letters and has claimed these were copyrighted and couldn’t be posted on the Web. Critics, including many in the legal community who disapprove of Riley’s tactics, have accused Dozier of trying to squash free speech.
Indeed, Dozier has used the infringement lawsuit to compel some Internet hosting services to remove Riley’s anti-Dozier site. Riley has since found a willing host.
Dozier “sent us threatening letters concerning his client about a year ago,” one of Riley’s sites says. “Dozier’s conduct was deemed bad enough that we created www.CyberTrialLawyer-SUCKS.com to send a clear message that the inventor community was not going to knuckle under.”
The lawsuit, filed in a Virginia Circuit Court in September 2008, claims Riley intentionally repeats the Dozier name and logo on the page to generate Web traffic and funnel people to Riley’s businesses, including his donation-funded InventorEd.org site.
Dozier’s complaint can be found here.
In Internet slang the tactic was known as a “Google bomb,” a practice intended to influence the ranking of particular pages in results returned by the Google search engine. Google has since implemented changes to thwart the practice. John Dozier, who filed the suit on his firm’s behalf, has a book due this year. Its title: Google Bomb. Riley gets a mention.
“When it comes to invention-promotion fraud, it would be an understatement to say that I am inflexible.” – Ron Riley
The lawsuit also says Riley’s use of Dozier’s trademarked logo constitutes infringement because the link on the trademark doesn’t direct visitors back to Dozier’s site. The lawsuit seeks $55,000 in compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.
“He’s infringing on our trademark because he’s using our mark repetitively on that page for no other purpose than to generate search-engine traffic” to his site, Dozier says. This is “motivated solely by his commercial self-interests.”
Many legal observers have said the trademark-infringement case is a thinly veiled personal attack against Riley. The bulk of the filing casts Riley’s past and motives in a negative light, saying he has inflated various titles, accomplishments and responsibilities.
“Riley has perpetrated one of the most successful business credential frauds ever committed upon the inventor and entrepreneur community,” the lawsuit states.
“The Dozier firm has made a variety of wild claims and I have denied them,” Riley wrote Inventors Digest. “There is no reason that you cannot with a bit of searching find the true answers to most of his claims. A fair report would say that. Beyond that, the burden is on the Dozier firm to prove the truth of what it alleged.”
Use of a trademark to criticize, he added, is by law fair use.
Paul Levy, an attorney with the nonprofit Public Citizen Litigation Group, is representing Riley. Levy has represented InventorEd previously against an invention-submission company.
Levy called the trademark-infringement claims “ludicrous,” and declined to discuss the personal attacks contained in the lawsuit.
Founded in 1993 and incorporated in 1999 as a nonprofit, InventorEd.org collected $226,370 in gross receipts for the tax year 2007, almost all of it reported through direct public support, according to the most recent federal tax filing.
David Pressman is a San Francisco-based patent attorney, author of Patent It Yourself, a long-time friend of Riley’s and vice president of InventorEd.org.
“Insofar as I know,” he wrote Inventors Digest, “InventorEd uses its donations to help inventors in various ways, including paying general overhead (and) outsourcing tasks to consultants in areas where they do not have volunteers or staff who can do the work.”
Donation funds pay for accounting, public relations and legal work as well as to update lists of inventor groups and inventors and compile lists of incubators and service providers, he said.
Donations also “are used to develop alliances with other groups, such as organized labor, venture capitalists, business associations, governmental agencies such as the SBA, the FTC, and others who may be in a position to help inventors achieve their goals,” Pressman said.
“InventorEd,” he added, “does not charge and never has charged for services.”
The lawsuit has generated intense debate on various Web sites. More than 80 comments appeared on TechDirt, a forum for technology, intellectual property and other issues. Supporters say Riley is an altruistic friend of inventors, even if he sometimes plays loose with the facts.
Critics – and there is no shortage of them on the TechDirt forum – call him a cyberbully.
TechDirt founder Mike Masnick summed up the feeling of many on his blog.
“So, here we have a lawyer who has repeatedly tried to silence critics with questionable use of copyright law, suing a patent system defender who throws around insults and lies like they’re going out of fashion,” Masnick wrote. “These two were made for each other.”