MICROSOFT CO-FOUNDER Paul Allen has decided to wage a legal battle against just about everyone by claiming patent infringement against a number of the Internet's biggest names.
The saga revolves around a company that Allen founded in 1992, Interval Research. Now little more than a patent holding outfit, Interval has alleged that AOL, Apple, Ebay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, Officemax, Staples, Yahoo and Youtube are all using up to four of its patented inventions without licences.
Allen invested tens of millions into the outfit some years ago and it employed some notable researchers to come up with ideas that one day might be profitable. Interval filed many seemingly wide ranging patents which it now says are "key processes in e-commerce".
Allen has left Microsoft out of the complaint that claims patent infringements which, according to Allen's spokesman, relate to "key pieces of the Internet". Most of the defendants named are e-commerce firms, but perhaps the largest e-commerce company, Amazon, is not among them. However, like Microsoft, Amazon is headquartered in Paul Allen's home town of Seattle, Washington.
It's not surprising that many of the companies named in the lawsuit have already said that they will defend themselves against Interval's lawsuit. Equally unsurprising is the fact that many are claiming that Interval, a firm that for all intents and purposes ceased to exist a decade ago, is simply being a patent troll.
According to PatentlyO, the patents are well drafted though that may not be enough for Allen to succeed. The patents have been described as extremely broad and quite vague. Legal arguments are also likely to focus on whether the inventions were blindingly obvious when the patents were filed. Apparently there are also some questions about how, exactly, the defendants are infringing the patents. Then there's the question, why did Interval wait until now to file suit? For many years now it has had ample time to sue these companies while the economy was in far better shape than it is today.
Over its active lifetime, Interval managed to amass about 300 patents. The firm was even referenced in Sergey Brin and Larry Page's research thesis in which the pair presented the ideas that turned into Google. At this point it is not known whether this will hurt Google's chances to wriggle out of Allen's lawsuit.
In reality, Interval might be angling for some sort of settlement from one of the firms it has accused of patent infringement. Should any single firm cave in, Interval's allegations will gain credence and help it gain traction against the others. Its actions could galvanise some of the Internet's biggest rivals to circle the wagons in order to safeguard their own revenues.
One also must wonder if Microsoft's exclusion is a sign of how little the firm has achieved on the Internet or whether Allen is just protecting his investment by managing not to, in effect, sue himself. But then, too, that might bring up antitrust questions.
It's not at all clear what is going on here, but whatever it is, it looks like it's going to drag through the courts for a long time. µ