Puzzling Out Paul Allen’s Patent Suit Against Silicon Valley’s Giants

There’s something odd about the patent infringement lawsuit that Paul Allen’s holding company Interval Licensing filed last week against an array of high-profile Silicon Valley and e-commerce companies. The organization, which is part of the Microsoft co-founder’s large array of Seattle-based business and technology ventures, isn’t saying exactly how it thinks the defendants—AOL, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, Yahoo, and YouTube—are infringing on four of its patents, issued between 2000 and 2004 to Interval Research, the now-defunct Palo Alto, CA, computer-science think tank that Allen co-founded with David Liddle in 1992. It’s just saying that they are.

“I can’t go into a lot of detail about that,” said David Postman, a spokesman for Allen, when I contacted him on Friday for more particulars about the suit. “And the complaint, as you’ll see, does not go into detail about that.”

Indeed, it does not. The 15-page document, filed Friday in United States District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle, lists the four patents and their titles, and accuses each of the 11 defendants of infringing on one or more of them. But it doesn’t point to specific programs, products, or websites that violate Interval’s intellectual property.

Postman says those kinds of details would emerge “as this process moves on,” presumably during a pre-trial discovery process or an actual jury trial, assuming that the parties don’t settle first. “Those things will become part of the discussion, certainly, but at this point, when you file the complaint, it is unfortunately a little complicated to explain,” Postman says.

The complaint also does not request a specific dollar amount in damages. “That’s also part of the process to come,” says Postman. “It’s all going to become part of the record, obviously. You can’t have the discussion without it, at some point. But it’s not required at the start.”

Such is the world of software patents, where organizations armed with broadly worded patents can mobilize battalions of lawyers and throw whole markets into uncertainty simply by filing non-specific infringement claims against one another. Oracle’s suit against Google for allegedly infringing on Java patents in its Android mobile operating system, filed a couple of weeks ago, is another case that’s got Silicon Valley watching with trepidation.

Postman says Interval is merely acting to protect Allen’s large investment in Internet technologies, many of which are now “used by people every day.” But without knowing precisely how Interval’s lawyers think the defendants’ product or services violate the four patents, the companies named in the complaint could only issue general responses last week.

“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,” Google said in a statement. “Innovation—not litigation—is the way to bring to market the kinds of products and services that benefit millions of people around the world.”

Facebook, in a statement to Computerworld, called the suit “completely without merit” and said the company “will fight it vigorously.”

It’s difficult to know what to make of this lawsuit, and a big part of the reason is that the patents at issue are, at least to a journalist’s eye, vague and overarching. Interpreted broadly, they would seem to cover a good portion of what happens on the Internet today.

Here’s a brief rundown of the four patents (which, in effect, come down to three, since Patent No. 6,788,314 is merely a corrected version of Patent No. 6,034,652):

Patent No. 6,263,507: “Browser for Use in Navigating a Body of Information, With Particular Application to Browsing Information Represented by Audiovisual Data.” Issued July 17, 2001.

This patent describes an audiovisual news browser designed to present various pieces of video, audio, and text content on a single computer monitor. To quote from the patent: “The invention can be used to review news stories acquired during one day from … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Puzzling Out Paul Allen’s Patent Suit Against Silicon Valley’s Giants”

  1. There’s nothing strange about Allen’s silence regarding how the accused products infringe the patents-in-suit. There’s no legal requirement for patent plaintiffs to discuss their infringement theories apart from what’s required in the complaint, not to mention the fact that any such discussion could be damaging to his case.