Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen today filed a lawsuit against many of the biggest names in tech, alleging they’re infringing on patents obtained by Interval Research, a venture Allen and Xerox veteran David Liddle started in 1992.
Interval’s research generated about 300 patents, four of which are the basis of the suit. The group operated in Palo Alto, growing to more than 100 researchers, until it was shuttered in 2000.
Named as defendents are Apple, Google, Facebook, eBay, AOL, Netflix, Yahoo, Google’s YouTube, OfficeMax, Office Depot and Staples.
Most of the companies declined to comment, but Facebook said the suit’s without merit and a Google spokesperson said it’s part of an “unfortunate trend of people trying to compete in the courtroom instead of the marketplace.”
If Allen is successful, he could go after additional companies, seeking royalties for Interval patents that touch on much of the current Web experience.
One of the patents in the suit lays claim to the concept of automatically showing related information on a website, so people viewing a news story online could be presented with related stories, for instance.
“The invention enables some or all of a body of information to be skimmed quickly, enabling a quick overview of the content of the body of information to be obtained,” states a 2001 patent for “browser for use in navigating body of information.” “The invention also enables quick identification of information that pertains to a particular subject.”
Allen has already tried to make money with that concept, starting a company called Evri, which developed a widget that media sites could embed into their sites and generate clusters of related stories.
It’s unclear at this point how Allen sought to license the technology. Asked whether the lawsuit follows attempts to negotiate licensing deals with the named companies, Allen’s spokesman David Postman said, “The defendants were informed that we had patents of interest.”
The belated pursuit of compensation for research conducted more than a decade ago puts Allen at risk of being labeled a patent troll. Postman characterized the move as “part of an ongoing process for years to monetize that portfolio.”
“Other patents were licensed to other people,” Postman said. “Now we’re to the point of reviewing that portfolio and seeing at the same time if technology in the marketplace has caught up to where Interval was. It’s clear that these patents cover a variety of key processes in search and e-commerce. We’re to the point where litigation is the next step on that.”
Within Allen’s circle of billionaire Microsoft veterans is Nathan Myhrvold, who started a Bellevue company called Intellectual Ventures that collects patents and makes money charging licensing fees. Bill Gates is invested in the group and helping with its research.
Intellectual Ventures’ rise contributed to the debate over reforming the U.S. patent system and raised questions about how much the system encourages innovation vs. enriching license holders.
But Postman said Allen’s situation with Interval is different, partly because Interval was formed to be a research organization developing new technologies for the “wired world” Allen envisioned. Postman also denied that Allen is enforcing his patents at the suggestion of Myhrvold or others.
“Ever since Interval was operating he’s known there was value in those patents,” Postman said. “That’s why he was able to sell some, spin some off and license others. It is not at all a case of someone influencing him to do this. This was driven by Paul’s interest in protecting his interest in innovation.”
Facebook, at least, is going to fight back hard. The company’s statement, provided by spokesman Andrew Noyes:
“We believe this suit is completely without merit and we will fight it vigorously.”
A spokeswoman for eBay provided a similar statement, saying “we are reviewing the complaint filed today. We intend to defend ourselves vigorously.”
An Office Depot spokesman said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation. AOL also declined to comment.
Google’s statement said, “This lawsuit against some of America’s most innovative companies reflects an unfortunate trend of people trying to compete in the courtroom instead of the marketplace. Innovation — not litigation — is the way to bring to market the kinds of products and services that benefit millions of people around the world.”
Microsoft is not named in the suit. The company has not obtained licenses to use the technology, according to Postman.
Postman declined to say why the lawsuit went after particular companies, but said more companies could be pursued later.
“The companies that were named today all were informed of the patents that we hold,” he said.
The patents at issue involve navigating with a browser for information, capturing a computer user’s attention and alerting users to information. They were filed starting in 1996 but some weren’t approved until as late as 2004.
Specifically, the patents cover:
— “Browser for Use in Navigating a Body of Information, With Particular Application to Browsing Information Represented By Audiovisual Data.”
— “Attention Manager for Occupying the Peripheral Attention of a Person in the Vicinity of a Display Device.”
— “Alerting Users to Items of Current Interest.”
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Seattle, also mentions that Interval was an early supporter of Google’s founders.
For example, Interval Research served as an outside collaborator to and provided research funding for Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page’s research that resulted in Google. Indeed, a Google screenshot dated September 27, 1998 entitled “About Google!” identifies Interval Research in the “Credits” section as one of two “Outside Collaborators” and one of four sources of “Research Funding” for Google. See Sept. 27, 1998 Website “About Google!” attached as Exhibit 1.
Later in the 15-page complaint, Google is alleged to be infringing on the browser patent by “making and using websites, hardware, and software to categorize, compare, and display segments of a body of information as claimed in the patent.”