[Fsfe-ie] Article in today's FT about iris recognition patent

Ben North ben at redfrontdoor.org
Fri Jan 6 13:56:29 CET 2006

There is an article on p9 of today's London Financial Times with the
headline "Eyes reopening to the benefits of biometrics", by Maija
Palmer.  It starts

   The market for creating biometric identification technology using the
   human iris is set to see rapid growth next year, thanks to the expiry of
   a patent that has stifled development over the past 20 years.

   The idea of using the iris as a way to identify people was discovered in
   the mid-1980s by US-based ophthalmologists Leonard Flom and Aran Safir,
   who patented the concept and created a company known today as Iridian

[This is the excerpt available at


without having to subscribe.]

It goes on to claim that Iridian was very aggressive at defending its
patent rights; "any business that so much as looked into iris
recognition was warned off by Iridian's lawyers".  The article goes on
to comment on the rapid growth of competition in the field since the US
expiry of the patent, with many new companies releasing products.
Iridian's CTO is reported as saying that the patent was both a blessing
and a curse --- many potential clients, particularly governments, were
reluctant to do business with the only supplier of a technology.  As
well as the worries about Iridian's stability as a company, "they
worried ... that in the absence of competition the technology was not as
highly developed as it could have been."  The rest of the articles talks
about the possibility that with new suppliers emerging, the technology
might well see more widespread use.

The general impression I got of the article was that the patent system
did not do its job here --- a broad patent on a "concept" was granted
and competition in the field, and therefore public accessibility to the
technology, suffered greatly.  I would claim that iris recognition would
count as a "software patent" --- there is nothing too difficult in the
physical realm of capturing the image.  It is not a trivial one (like
Microsoft's "is not" patent), yet here is a case where it did not result
in increased availability of innovation to the public.  The arguments
and situation are probably equally applicable to non-software patents as
well, i.e., this is more an "anti-patent" data point than an
"anti-software-patent" data point, but I thought it interesting that the
FT was so negative about the effects of the patent here.

(The iris recognition algorithm and ideas are pretty cool --- John
Daugman's website http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/users/jgd1000/ has details.  I
went to a seminar a few years ago where he presented the ideas and it
was very interesting stuff.)

Worth sending on to FFII if anyone has suitable contact information?


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