Some of the largest e-commerce, social media and Internet-search giants including Google Inc., Facebook Inc., eBay Inc., Apple, Yahoo, Inc., AOL Inc., Netflix, Inc, and Google's YouTube have recently been cited in a patent infringement suit by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. Mr. Allen claims that these corporations and other Internet companies have used fundamental components of his patented technologies as an integral part of their e-commerce and internet-search functionality. Mr. Allen cites that in doing so, they have violated four patents of his firm's, Interval Licensing LLC, the holder of these patents. The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, based in Seattle.
The interest in this case for faculty and independent inventors will be about the timeliness in which one reacts to patent infringement. Mr. Allen claims that his company, Interval Research developed these patented technologies over a decade ago that have now become standards to search and online shopping. Interval Research was the original dot-com think tank founded by Allen and David Liddle in 1992 to perform advanced research and development in the areas of information systems, communications, and computer science. The patents in the lawsuit cover fundamental web technologies first developed at Interval Research in the 1990s. At that time, Interval Research had employed hundreds of the world's leading scientists, physicists, and engineers. They were recognized "at the forefront in designing next-generation science and technology" the suit claims with some 300 patents secured.
Core to this case will be what qualifies timeliness and should that override the merits and deserving return on investment an inventor should receive for their enforceable patents. Historically, the courts have penalized patent holders who have not reacted to infringement matters in a timely manner. Case law also supports that position, citing that it is the responsibility of the patent holder to know about alleged infringement. However, independent inventors, small businesses and even the best of university TTOs may not often have the resources to track or file in a timely manner, especially against some of these global giants. While this may not be the case for Mr. Allen, the outcome will impact innovators across the board. Some legal experts have said this lawsuit could be a positive game changer though, encouraging licensing deals early on - which is good for the inventor.
The most complex part of this suit will be differentiating the patent functionality from other influencing core components to determine damages. As the Internet has grown exponentially over the last decade, adaptive functionality has become a driver of open-source standards or other patented components. It may become difficult to distinguish between basic Web functionality that proves 'with certainty' that any one patent is the 'key' component of e-commerce or internet-search over time. Also in consideration for damages will be how other advancements in technology have exceeded the original value of the underlying patent and to what degree the defendants are suffering due to lengthy delays.
And last, as a result of Allen's untimely filings, what other small start-ups and their technologies developed in the interim will be affected going forward? After all, while rolling stones gather no moss, things could get sticky. What about the legal implications and potential future suits that may arise from this case? While these larger search and e-commerce companies may be able to afford to litigate, but what about the many smaller Web companies that can't afford the future backlash of this suit? At what point will our politicians take a break from complaining about the "uncertainty" of our economic policies to notice the massive uncertainty in the deeply dysfunctional patent system?
David Postman, spokesman for Paul G. Allen cites these key patents are fundamental to the ways that leading e-commerce and search companies operate today. "Interval Research was an early, ground-breaking contributor to the development of the internet economy. It has worked hard to bring its technologies to market through spinning off new companies, technology transfer arrangements, and sales of its patented technology."
Postman goes on to say, "This lawsuit is necessary to protect our investment in innovation. We are not asserting patents that other companies have filed, nor are we buying patents originally assigned to someone else. These are patents developed by and for Interval."
One other issue worth noting is why Microsoft has been left out of this suit altogether, as they operate the third-leading search engine online, and provide search technologies to members in this complaint. Do we hear troll? Mr. Allen has already had competitors and champions recently question his motives and suggest that Interval Licensing is merely a shell company that fits the profile of a troll. This discussion seems to be having more attention than the actual interpretation of the patents themselves.
While there are several strong opinions on both sides of this case, it will be interesting to follow, as Mr. Allen's patents are still fully enforceable. And at the end of the day, IP Advocates remains on the side of the inventor, as we believe it is important to recognize those innovators responsible for helping build the foundation of technologies we take for granted today. Key word 'build.' They should be rewarded in some capacity as it helps to create deterrents to ongoing piracy, copycats and infringement- even if you are one of the wealthiest people in the world.
The patents Interval Licensing, LLC is asserting include:
- United States Patent No. 6,263,507 issued for an invention entitled "Browser for Use in Navigating a Body of Information, With Particular Application to Browsing Information Represented By Audiovisual Data."
- United States Patent No. 6,034,652 issued for an invention entitled "Attention Manager for Occupying the Peripheral Attention of a Person in the Vicinity of a Display Device."
- United States Patent No. 6,788,314 issued for an invention entitled "Attention Manager for Occupying the Peripheral Attention of a Person in the Vicinity of a Display Device."
- United States Patent No. 6,757,682 issued for an invention entitled "Alerting Users to Items of Current Interest."