PHOSITA and Patently-O report on the recently decided Crater Corp. v. Lucent Technologies, Inc. (PDF) case. This case involved a group of inventors that invented an elegant connector for linking one pipe or cable to another without nut threads or bolted flanges. Their design was based upon the seams of a tennis ball. They got a patent, then went out to try to license it. Lucent contacted them and said they were working on something for the government and thought it could use the inventors' invention. The inventors worked with Lucent, and lo' and behold, their invention worked perferctly for the government's needs. When the inventors called to license the patent, Lucent said, sorry, we don't have to pay you guys "because of some sort of provision for military secrets." Hence the lawsuit. The government intervened and said the stuff was secret and that the inventors could not get documents from Lucent to prove its case. The court agreed, effectively killing the suit. Wired does an excellent job outlining the details.
Here's the intrigue part from the wired story:
A Navy spokeswoman declined to comment on the Crater case, but outside experts say it's easy enough to guess the nature of the top-secret project the government is protecting. "It's all but self-evident that it has to do with the clandestine monitoring of fiber-optics communications cables on the ocean floor," says Aftergood.
"They've been interested in it since the first fiber-optic cable was ever invented," says James Bamford, author of two books on the NSA. "It's clear that they have a major operation in terms of tapping into sea cables."
Fiber-optic cables were well on their way to supplanting less-secure communications technologies at the time that Lucent approached the Crater inventors, and it's been widely reported that the switch threatened to cut off the electronic spies at the NSA. "There's been this huge shift from using satellite communications, which is very easy to tap into, to using both terrestrial and transoceanic fiber-optic cables, and that's presented a major problem for NSA," says Bamford.
To counter that problem, and keep the electronic intelligence flowing, NSA has reportedly developed sophisticated techniques for wiretapping undersea cables, relying on specially equipped Navy submarines, the most advanced of which is the newly recommissioned USS Jimmy Carter, fresh from a $1 billion upgrade that reportedly includes state-of-the-art technology for tapping into undersea fiber-optic communications.
Kind of like Operation Ivy Bells. Which, my good friend Eric E. Willison has a screenplay on the topic, if any one is interested.