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NTP sues everybody over alleged wireless e-mail patents (updated)

Ordinarily, a headline announcing that one company has simultaneously filed suit against Apple, Google and Microsoft--plus the mobile-phone vendors HTC, LG and Motorola--could only be read as a death wish.

But this is NTP, the company that after years of litigation--even as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office began invalidating some of its patents--extracted a $612.5 million settlement from BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion in 2006. So the news shouldn't be that much of a surprise.

This time around, the Richmond patent-holding company has set its sights on bigger targets. Its press release claims that those six companies are guilty of "infringing NTP's eight patents related to the delivery of electronic mail over wireless communications systems."

What are these patents? We can only guess, as the one-page release issued by NTP's public-relations firm does not name them. (A publicist has not responded to an e-mailed query.) 5:30 p.m.: See below for a copy of NTP's complaint against Google, as well as links to the patents involved.

You can't check on NTP's Web site, because it doesn't have one. No, really--North Korea has taken to the Web, but this company doesn't think it necessary. Then again, NTP has never seemed too interested in winning in the court of public opinion.

What I do know is that when I've used Apple, Google or Microsoft's smartphone software to get and send e-mail--on devices made by HTC, LG, Motorola and other vendors--there's been nothing patentable about it. Outside of proprietary systems such as Microsoft's Exchange Server, e-mail runs on open standards that predate NTP's existence and are not limited to wired communication: Post Office Protocol, Internet Message Access Protocol and Simple Mail Transport Protocol, not to mention the underlying "TCP/IP" language of the Internet itself.

NTP's suit against RIM targeted more specific features--the "push" mail delivery system run by the Waterloo, Ontario-based company. So is NTP (which in that press release describes late company founder Tom Campana as "the inventor of wireless email") now saying it invented those fundamental e-mail protocols, too? Or is it merely claiming to have invented wireless data in general? In the latter case, the companies who do hold patents on 2G and 3G wireless technologies would probably like to have a word with NTP's lawyers.

I'm a skeptic about the utility of software patents as a way to "promote the Progress of Sciences and useful arts" (the only reason the Constitution provides for granting patents). But the other cases I've questioned here seem the height of reasonableness compared to NTP's absurd gambit.

As others have written, the combined legal staffs of Apple, Google, HTC, LG, Microsoft and Motorola should have little trouble dispatching this suit. But there may be a simpler fix: These six companies could combine whatever spare change they can find under their sofa cushions, buy NTP, liquidate the firm and release its patents under open, royalty-free conditions.

Update, 5:17 p.m.: NTP publicist Zach Olsen e-mailed a copy of the company's complaint against Google. I've embedded the PDF after the jump; if you want to check out the patents involved, the suit alleges infringement of U.S. patents 5,436,960 ("Electronic mail system with RFommunications to mobile processors and method of operation thereof"), 5,438,611 ("Electronic mail system with RF communications to mobile processors originating from outside of the electronic mail system and method of operation thereof"), 5,625,670 ("Electronic mail system with RF communications to mobile processors "), 5,819,172 ("Electronic mail system with RF communications to mobile radios"), 6,067,451 ("Electronic mail system with RF communications to mobile processors"), 6,317,592 ("Electronic mail system with RF communications to mobile processors"), 5,479,472 ("System for interconnecting electronic mail systems by RF communications and method of operation thereof") and 5,631,946 ("System for transferring information from a RF receiver to a processor under control of a program stored by the processor and method of operation thereof"). I welcome your assessment of them in the comments--especially if you, unlike me, have a law degree and practice patent law for a living.

NTP complaint against Google

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 9, 2010; 3:29 PM ET
Categories:  E-mail , Mobile , Policy and politics  
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Maybe NTP wants to be bought out. Is it a privately-owned company? Is extorting a buy-out through patent litigation a profitable enterprise?

Posted by: Miles_Standish_Proud | July 9, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

If I were Apple, Google, Microsoft, LG, HTC, or Motorola I would combine up find a way to jointly counter-sue (not my problem finding that way) and then offer to settle with these bozos by 'buying' them for the price that they would owe when they lose.

The major problem with patents isn't EVEN software patents (which are stupid and destructive to innovation.) THE problem in patents is companies that exist only to hold patents that they do nothing but SUE with.

Posted by: Shiipon | July 9, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

If it pre-dates NTP, it has no leg to stand on. Just an opinion.

Posted by: docchari | July 10, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

NTP has a PUBLICIST but they don't have a WEB SITE? Is their headquarters under a bridge in Richmond?

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | July 10, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Not a patent expert, but I'd say close call on some of these. Maybe the out for Google and others is that the patents should not have been issued because using RF is obvious, and obvious things are not supposed to be patented. Voice started on wire and then moved to RF, and it is natural for e-mail to move from wire to RF.

A couple of patents, like the first, seem to deal with the RF link connecting networks (between gateways) and not the end cellular connection. Well, AT&T had cross-country RF microwave links for long distance well before these patents. If you were an early Compuserve customer using dialup I'd guess your e-mail sometimes went on one of those RF links, so there is a prior art issue for those few patents, at least.

Posted by: Bob_Dobbs | July 10, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

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