Paul Allen refiles lawsuit against Google, Apple, Facebook, others

The extent of the infringements outlined in Paul Allen's amended suit against Google, et al, feels oh so wrong. Read on and find out why.

Paul Allen and his company, Interval Licensing, LLC, just met the deadline imposed by a US District Court judge for refiling their patent infringement suit against Apple, Google, Facebook, and several other companies when they amended their complaint yesterday. The suit was originally rejected earlier this month for being too vague. While it now contains more specifics, including screen shots from allegedly infringing websites, it remains unclear whether it will be sufficient to allow the lawsuit to move forward in court.

According to the Seattle Times,

Allen's suit alleges that his patents cover, among other things, systems that automatically call up and display related content. The approach is widely used by online retailers and other sites across the Web.

For instance, when viewing a product on Apple's iTunes store, the store automatically suggests related content that may be of interest. The suit filed today argues that this infringes on at least 20 claims made by a patent Allen holds.

The complaint specifically calls out Android (among other sites and companies, including Google's YouTube). Florian Mueller notes in his Foss Patents blog that,

There are two paragraphs that accuse Android. The first one:

44. Defendant Google has infringed and continues to infringe at least claims 4, 8, 11, 15, 16, 17, and 18 of the ’652 patent under 35 U.S.C. § 271 by making, using, selling, distributing, and encouraging customers to use devices containing the Android Operating System and associated software such as Text Messaging, Google Talk, Google Voice, and Calendar. Devices containing the Android Operating System and associated software infringe by displaying information including, e.g., text messages, Google Voice messages, chat messages, and calendar events, to a user of a mobile device in an unobtrusive manner that occupies the peripheral attention of the user. For example, as demonstrated by Exhibit 24, when a user receives a new Google Voice message, the Android Operating System and Google Voice software display a notification in the status bar screen for a short period of time.

The relevant patent is US Patent No. 6,034,652 on an "attention manager for occupying the peripheral attention of a person in the vicinity of a display device".

Seriously? Notification icons? Really? Maybe Paul Allen was just a genius with more foresight than Nostradamus, but Android is hardly the only portable OS to provide unobtrusive notices of text messages. I don't think many of us would want our phones ringing and blinking like those restaurant buzzers that tell you your table is ready every time we get a text. What gets me even more than the idea of subtle notifications infringing on the patents is the idea that the infringements can extend to so many Google properties.

Mueller goes on to discuss potential ripple effects across the entire Android ecosystem:

If any of those infringement assertions against Android is true, this can spell trouble for makers of Android-based devices, and for Android application developers. The two paragraphs I quoted state clearly that the alleged infringement is an issue of "devices containing the Android Operating System", and the "Android Market infrastructure" is mentioned in the same context.

He's right, of course. However, this just seems so extraordinarily trumped up and blown out of proportion that I struggle to envision an plaintiff victory here.

Interestingly, while Apple is named in the complaint, apparently the notifications on its iPhones and iPads aren't sufficiently subtle to violate patents like Android's. And since Microsoft isn't named anywhere in the suit, one can only assume that those restaurant buzzers are really Windows Phone 7 devices in disguise.

One other particularly distressing component of the complaint (follow the link to read a PDF of the entire, bizarre amended filing) relates to YouTube (as well as all of the other sites and services that recommend content based on a specific search):

YouTube operates the website, which provides content such as videos and advertisements to users.  In order to help users find additional content that may be of interest, the software and hardware that operate this website compare the available content items to determine whether they are related.  When a user views a particular content item, the website generates a display of related content items so as to inform the user that the related items may be of interest.  For example, as demonstrated by Exhibit 18, when a user views a video page on, the website displays both the selected video information (identified by the red box) and links to other related videos and advertisements (identified by the green boxes)

So essentially Paul Allen holds the patents to the fledgling underpinnings of semantic search. Again, REALLY!?!?!?

If Allen wins this suit, analysts believe that he could win as much as half a billion dollars. To a billionaire who goes around building music museums, it seems as though there would need to be more at stake than a mere $500 million to bother going after the likes of Google, Apple, and Staples. This seems like it's more about the future of the Web (including the mobile Web and Microsoft's biggest competitor) than it is about YouTube and iTunes content recommendations.


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