Technology On Trial
Animating Fish & Neave
A New York patent firm opts to create its own animation department.
By Ashby Jones
ABOUT 10 years ago, patent litigators started testing the theory that a good animation is worth a thousand pictures. Three-dimensional animations, the lawyers found, did a great job of showing the inner workings of complicated processes. They could take a judge inside a computer hard drive. They could teach a jury how seawater was desalinated. They could prove to a patent examiner that a new electron microscope differed from all the rest on the market.
Photo by Richard E. Peck
At the time, most courtroom animations were done by outside vendors. But in 1992, patent litigators at New York's Fish & Neave decided it made sense to build an animation shop within the firm. The firm hired a 20-something animator named Matthew Shriver to run the show.
Today, the "creative department" is an indispensable part of Fish & Neave's practice. Shriver's group boasts five full-time employees. It pumps out stills, video presentations, sophisticated 3-D animations--basically, anything short of Shrek. The department kicks out a modest profit. But profit is sort of beside the point. Mostly, the department gives lawyers control over what gets shown in the courtroom.
A few years ago, partner Robert Morgan was defending an infringement claim on behalf of the maker of an electronic circuit. Morgan knew that the two circuits were different from each other. But the engineering was complicated, and the Fish & Neave team was struggling to find an easy way to explain it.
Like a bolt out from the blue, Shriver came up with an analogy. "Mat's theory was that the process of feeding an electrical charge to the circuit was like filling a reservoir with buckets of water," recalls Morgan. "The second I heard it, I knew he was right on the money."
Shriver promptly whipped up an animation. Morgan showed it at a settlement conference, and within days, the other side settled on terms favorable to Morgan's client. "Mat has ideas like that all the time," says Morgan. "You just can't overstate his value to the firm."
Shriver also has fans outside the legal world. Four years ago, he won the "Kahuna Award" for a 3D animated music video involving a surreal story about the secret life of socks. (Don't laugh -- he single-handedly beat out a team working for Geffen Records.)
Shriver learned the trade in the late 1980s, while a student at the State University of New York at New Paltz. After graduation he worked briefly for a New York advertising agency. Then he set off on his own. He handled freelance assignments for IBM Corp., Scientific American, Inc., and others. In 1992 he took a career-altering call from Fish & Neave partner Laurence Rogers.
At the time, Rogers was representing Cyrix Corp., the silicon-chip manufacturer, in a patent dispute with Intel. Rogers couldn't quite visualize the key differences between the two companies' microprocessors.
On a cross-country flight, Rogers confided his trouble to Shriver's father, Bruce, a computer science expert retained by Cyrix in the case. The elder Shriver pulled out his laptop. He showed Rogers a three-dimensional animation he had asked his 24-year-old son to put together.
"Bruce hit a button and things started to move and wiggle on the screen," recalls Rogers. "After viewing it once, I understood everything I needed to know about the architecture of the two chips."
Rogers had used animators before, but he'd never seen anything like Shriver's Cyrix animation. After returning home, Rogers and fellow partner Morgan asked Fish & Neave to hire Shriver as a full-time animation and graphics expert. The in-house graphics department was born.
Ten years later, almost every senior patent litigator at Fish & Neave has his favorite Shriver story. A few years ago, a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office examiner denied Pitney Bowes Inc.'s application for a patent on a new printer design.
After the rejection was overturned on appeal, Jesse Jenner, who is now managing partner, filed a reapplication. "[The examiners] knew who we were, and they really didn't want to see us again," he recalls.
But that time, the company had a Shriver animation. "The video clearly showed that the way our client's printer created characters was unique," Jenner says. "Almost immediately, the examiners awarded us the patent. And then they apologized for not having granted it in the first place."
Christopher Godziela, a former lawyer at F&N and now a senior attorney at AT&T Corp., recently used Shriver's animations in several patent litigations (all settled before trial). Godziela says that Shriver's proximity to Fish & Neave lawyers made his job a lot easier.
"It was so much simpler than doing it over the phone or via e-mail," Godziela says.
Animations that twirl, sparkle, and win over juries aren't cheap. Vendors often charge more than $50,000 for a 30-minute production. Fish & Neave doesn't charge per animation, as most vendors do. Rather, the firm bills by the hour. Shriver's rate is close to that of a Fish & Neave midlevel associate. The other animators are cheaper.
Jenner says the firm's aim every year is simply to make back the several hundred thousand dollars it puts into the department. But he admits the firm has made a "modest" amount of money in recent years.
Shriver frequently gets job solicitations. After he won the Kahuna Award in 1998, even a few Hollywood studios got in touch. But he insists he's not going anywhere. "Every day, I feel challenged at Fish & Neave," he says. "And I feel like my work has meaning beyond sheer entertainment. I like that."
The firm only wishes Shriver were something it could patent, and clone.
LTN contributing editor Ashby Jones is a technology reporter for American Lawyer Media Inc.