New patent infringement case

From Information Week — Amazon, Google, Yahoo, And Others Sued For Automating Their E-mail:

Six major Internet companies have been sued for using computers to process their e-mail.
AOL, Amazon, Borders, Google, IAC, and Yahoo stand accused of violating a patent on automatic message routing held by Texas-based Polaris IP.
Attorneys representing Polaris IP filed a claim of patent infringement on Monday in U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Texas in Marshall, Texas.
The lawsuit charges the companies with implementing systems that “comprise interpreting electronic messages with rule base and case base knowledge engines” as described in the patent held by the plaintiff, “Automatic message interpretation and routing system.”
The lawsuit seeks an injunction against continued infringement. If granted — a remote prospect at best — the injunction would have a significant impact on the defending companies.
A more likely scenario appears to be a payday for the plaintiff. “It looks like Polaris IP is in the business of licensing patent rights and has no desire to enforce its requested injunction,” said Dennis Crouch, associate professor of law at University of Missouri School of Law and the author of the law blog Patently-O, in an e-mail. “I expect that Polaris IP will be willing to settle these cases for what it believes is a reasonable six- or seven-digit figure.”
Crouch pointed out that the message routing patent at issue has been involved in litigation many times. “There are no published opinions associated with these cases and they have all been settled,” he said.
Polaris IP, Crouch observed, “appears to be part of a web of IP-related companies associated with attorney David Pridham.” These companies include Orion IP, Constellation IP, IP Navigation Group, Cushion Technologies, CT IP Holdings, Triton, Circinus IP, and Firepond.
Pridham did not respond to a request for comment.
The method and system detailed in the patent describes a way “for automatically interpreting an electronic message including the steps of (a) receiving an electronic message from a source; (b) interpreting the electronic message using a rule base and case base knowledge engine; and (c) retrieving one or more predetermined responses corresponding to the interpretation of the electronic message from a repository for automatic delivery to the source.”
The Eastern District of Texas has become a favored venue for filing patent lawsuits. Polaris IP has launched three other patent cases there in the past two years against numerous technology companies, including Art Technology Group, Oracle, and Sirius Satellite Radio. All three of these cases have involved the same patent, which has a long legal history.
“The Eastern District of Texas has seen a flood of patent litigation in recent years based on its reputation as a patent-friendly court,” said Crouch. “Interestingly, that reputation is rapidly changing as the court invalidates more patents.”

Legitimate licensing or patent troll? Without knowing the validity of the patent (whether it is overly broad, etc.) it is impossible to say. The patent has a “long legal history” but that could mean almost anything. And since the cases have all been settled, no court has ever ruled on the validity. One can presume that since the defendants settled, they thought the patent valid. But there is a history of cases being settled because the settlement is cheaper than the cost of winning the lawsuit, not even figuring in the possibility of losing.
To me, the case points out one big flaw in the current system — the necessity of a lawsuit. Yes, I know there are lots of lawsuits on numerous frivolous ground (remember I live in DC, home of the infamous drycleaner pants suit). But it seems to me that there are an extraordinary number of patent suits, where the cases should be straight forward: either a patent is valid or it isn’t. After all, there doesn’t seem to be a number of lawsuits over the standard land claim. Unless there are unusual circumstances, it is pretty clear whether I own my home or not.
There is a lot of strum und drang over the pending patent legislation. I can’t comment on each and every specific provision of the bill. I do know that the patent system needs to restore some sense of certainty to the process. Right now, it is coming to resemble “Lets Make a Deal.”

Update:
The patent complaint is available on the New York Times website. Here is what the Time’s technology blog has to say on the case:

Maybe they haven’t sued the whole Internet, just a good chunk of it. Polaris IP, a patent firm, has filed a patent infringement suit against Google, Yahoo, Amazon.com, A9.com, Borders, AOL and IAC/InterActiveCorp, which owns Ask.com.
Polaris is the owner of United States Patent No. 6,411,947, for an “Automatic Message Interpretation and Routing System.” It is not entirely clear what the patent covers or how Google, Yahoo, et. al. infringed on it. We’ve contacted the lawyers for Polaris for details.
The patent appears to cover a customer service system that can analyze incoming customer e-mail messages and decide whether they can be handled automatically or need review by a human. According to the complaint, Polaris claims that Google’s advertising systems, including AdWords and AdSense, which analyze electronic messages to determine which ads to place next to them, infringes on its patent. Yahoo and others similarly infringe on the patent, according to the complaint.
Patent claims, of course, are a dime a dozen. And this case was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Marshall Division, the nation’s preferred venue for patent plaintiffs.
But last year Polaris filed a suit against Kana Software alleging that it had infringed the same patent. Kana settled the case in March and agreed to license the technology from Polaris, though terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

The comments on the Times blog are very interesting.

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