Patent lawsuit du jour: Paul Allen versus the world (but not Microsoft or Amazon)
Stop me if you've read this before: A tech company you've never heard of, with no record of selling innovative new products to customers, has filed a sweeping lawsuit against a line-up of name-brand tech firms for allegedly infringing on its patents.
A month ago, the patent plaintiff was NTP, the obscure Richmond firm that sued Apple, Google, HTC, LG, Microsoft and Motorola over a set of patents covering wireless e-mail delivery.
Today, it's Interval Licensing LLC, a company set up by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen that filed suit Friday morning in the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Washington against AOL, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, Yahoo and YouTube.
Interval's press release (note that this company, like NTP, doesn't have a Web site) says those 11 companies infringe on patents covering "fundamental web technologies first developed" at Allen's since-shuttered firm Interval Research in the 1990s. The lawsuit (ZDNet has a copy posted) does not request a specific sum of damages from those firms.
The four patents in question are titled "Browser for use in navigating a body of information, with particular application to browsing information represented by audiovisual data" (patent no. 6,263,507); "Attention manager for occupying the peripheral attention of a person in the vicinity of a display device" (no. 6,034,652); "Attention manager for occupying the peripheral attention of a person in the vicinity of a display device" (no. 6,788,314); and "Alerting users to items of current interest" (6,757,682).
Reading through the descriptions in those patents, it's not hard to find parallels between the claimed inventions in each and such automatically-generated Web interfaces as Google News's dispay of current headlines, Facebook's News Feed, the suggested downloads in Apple's iTunes Store, eBay's auction listings and YouTube's lists of related clips.
But you also can easily imagine examples from other companies that also would infringe on Interval's patents. How about the search listings at Microsoft's Bing site or Amazon's hints about what to buy next? And yet, as Todd Bishop noted in his excellent write-up on the TechFlash blog, Interval somehow neglected to sue Microsoft (which Allen co-founded) or Amazon (which occupies a set of buildings developed by Allen's Vulcan, Inc.).
If Interval's patents really are "fundamental to the ways that leading e-commerce and search companies operate today," as the press release declares, I trust we'll see Interval suing those two firms and a great many others.
But the company risks running into a different problem first: These patents, like many, appear to plug existing insights and innovations together. And if that combination could be considered obvious to somebody experienced in Web design, these patents should not have been issued in the first place, as per an overdue Supreme Court ruling that in 2007 reaffirmed the patent system's doctrine of "non-obviousness." Getting a patent overturned in court can take years, but Interval has just given some of the biggest tech companies in America an excellent reason to get their lawyers to work on challenging its patents.
Fortunately, those companies also can afford the legal bills. That may not be the case for many smaller Web sites. So at what point will the chief executives of America take a break from complaining about the "uncertainty" of Washington economic policy to notice the massive uncertainty created by an out-of-control patent system?
August 27, 2010; 4:45 PM ET
Categories: Policy and politics
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