In a fifteen page patent infringement suit filed in United States District Court for the Western District of Washington at Seattle, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen alleges that AOL, Apple, Ebay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, Officemax, Staples, Yahoo and YouTube have all violate four key patents owned by Interval Research, an idea lab he owned some years ago.
The patents involved focus on functions central to e-commerce, such as the ability of a site to monitor what a consumer is looking at in real-time, and recommend related products; the ability to refer readers of a news story to related stories, and the ability to stream news updates and stock quotes on webpages. Not surprisingly, Microsoft, which may also be using these claimed patents, is not named in the suit.
The patents at issue were granted between 2000 and 2004. This was a difficult period for the Patent Office with respect to online applications patents. The Office lacked depth in their team of examiners as far as online software applications, and in some cases may have granted patents whose claims were based on prior art that was not fully understood at the time. A classic earlier example of this problem was the patent originally granted to Random House for “multimedia” – a patent which the Office later withdrew when the industry rose up in protest and proved that the claims were not new, or novel.
The first line of defense in most IP infringement claims is to challenge the validity of the underlying grant or claim, and it looks like that is the path defendants will take in this case as well. I’ll be keeping an eye on this one, as a win for Allen will have far reaching impact on the digital world.