Putting Tooltips On Links? Company Demanding $80,000 For Patent Infringement

from the the-patent-system-at-work dept

Two months ago, we received an email from a guy at a company who claimed that an operation called Webvention was claiming that his company's website was violating its patent by having links on their website that would show additional info when you moused over the links -- commonly called "tooltips." This is a standard feature in HTML. I asked the guy for details and he suddenly got worried and said he would need permission to share the threat letter. I even promised him I'd keep his company's name out of it, I just wanted to see the specifics of what the threat letter said. After emailing me back once to say he was busy but would get to it, he then stopped responding to all my emails. I eventually did write a post about how Webvention was suing a bunch of website operators, noting how incredibly vague the lawsuit was, and also pointing out that this was one of Intellectual Ventures' one-time patents.

While the guy who contacted us never came through with any details, it looks like many of the details are now coming out. Ars Technica calls our attention to the news that two of the companies who received similar letters, Tenneco and Novartis, have both sued pre-emptively, asking for the patent to be invalidated, or failing that, for a declaratory judgment that they don't infringe. While Ars Technia says that the patent covers "rollover images," I believe it's even worse than that. They seem to believe it covers tooltips. The key claim in the patent (5,251,294) is:
28. A computer-based method for aiding a user in accessing a body of stored information which includes segments of related information, the method comprising displaying a set of labels, each label providing an abbreviated indication of information content of a corresponding one of said segments, said labels being displayed in an organized model reflecting relationships among information contents of said corresponding segments, enabling a user to point to individual labels in said model using an electronic pointing technique, and for each label to which said user points, displaying to the user, for previewing, the information content of the corresponding segment.
Yeah. Tooltips. Anyway, the lawsuit filing actually shares much of the details of the threat letter that my original source was unwilling to share. Webvention apparently offers a special deal: if you pay up within 45 days, it'll only cost you $80,000, for using one of the most basic features on the web today. The letter also claims that a ton of companies have, in fact, licensed this ridiculous patent, including HP, Symantec, Panasonic, American Express, Nokia and Google. If so, that's really sad that those companies would give in on such a lawsuit. Joe Mullin's story at Law.com (linked above) notes that at least Nokia and Google are supposedly paying members of Intellectual Ventures -- which is supposed to protect them from bogus patent claims. It would be a bit ironic (and would certainly question the value of IV) if it turned out that both companies paid up to avoid a lawsuit from an ex-IV patent (the other possibility might just be that Webvention considers IV members to have "licensed" the patent, which would be misleading).

Either way, kudos to Novartis and Tenneco for fighting this shakedown, whereas others appear to have given in. This use of the patent certainly has the feeling of the infamous JPEG patent (5,253,341) which was used to terrorize all sorts of websites that had JPEG images on their site, until it was finally knocked down by the USPTO. Of course, the real shame is all those companies who have already paid up for this patent. Assuming this patent is also struck down eventually, the companies who paid up won't get their money back. It's a shame they can't sue the USPTO for outright fraud in approving such a patent in the first place.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:00am

    What's the deal with expiration on this patent?

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 11:16am

      Re:

      Yeah, the patent was filed Feb 7, 1990 and issued Oct 5, 1993. Patents from that era get the longer of 20 years from filing (which ended Feb 7, 2010) or 17 years from issue (which ended Oct 5, 2010). So (even assuming all maintenance fees have been paid) this patent is no longer in force as of a week or two ago.

      (Legal info here. Before you ask, patent term adjustments don't apply to pre-1995 patents either.)

       

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Nov 10th, 2010 @ 8:35am

      Re:

      Patent law allows for the patent holder to seek damages from the time the infringer became aware of the patent, up to a limit of 6 years. Method claims, since they can't be marked, are always deemed to be "noticed" when the patent grants (or published in limited circumstances). So even though this patent is now expired, the claw-back for damages can be 6 years.

       

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  •  
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    Beta (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:06am

    ...the real shame is all those companies who have already paid up for this patent. Assuming this patent is also struck down eventually, the companies who paid up won't get their money back.

    I have mixed feelings on this one. On one hand, I sympathise with victims of extrtion schemes; on the other, I know that the ones who roll over are the ones who keep the extortion game going. If they got their money back when someone else defeated the patent, there'd be that much less incentive to fight back.

     

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  •  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:15am

    Shame

    Primary Examiner: Herndon; Heather R.

    Sadly, she seems to specialize in these kinds of patents.

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:26am

    An abuse of patent law used only to hinder progress for personal gain.

     

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  •  
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    R. Miles (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 10:01am

    I've a question for all you lawyers out there.

    It's a shame they can't sue the USPTO for outright fraud in approving such a patent in the first place.
    Why? If the USPTO is no longer funded by taxpayer dollars, this means it's a private business and should be subject to a lawsuit for deliberately providing false services to its clients.

    Isn't the patent office suppose to reject applications which are not obvious?

    I know lawyers get a bad rap sometimes, but one willing to take on this shady business (which opens the door to allow others to file broad patents for the sole purpose of collecting the filing fee) gets my vote.

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Chosen Reject, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 11:55am

      Re: I've a question for all you lawyers out there.

      I think it would be an excellent way to give the patent office real incentives to not allow bad patents. Whenever a patent gets overturned, the patent office can be sued for treble damages. Of course, it would have to be a third party that does the review that overturns it, otherwise the USPTO wouldn't ever go reject an already approved patent. And then we'd have to figure out a way to fund the third-party reviewers in such a way as to entice them to reject all USPTO patents.

      On second thought, all this could be avoided by changing the USPTO to the USTO and getting rid of patents.

       

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    •  
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      Jebrew (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 1:19pm

      Re: I've a question for all you lawyers out there.

      Isn't the patent office suppose to reject applications which are not obvious?


      ...so you think they're supposed to accept obvious patents? I think you've got one too many negatives in that sentence.

       

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  •  
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    tracker1 (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 10:12am

    The target is wrong...

    If all the site is doing is adding a title="..." attribute to the markup, and no active javascript to display special content then it isn't even responsible for any violation of the patent... the behavior of displaying a title attribute on a link as a tooltip is the browser's. The site in question cannot be violating the patent, as they are not enabling the functionality in that case.

     

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  •  
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    LZ7, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 11:20am

    80k = 2 jobs lost

    It never said that they paid up to the tune of 80k. You know the old trick, where you pay big companies to "license" your "invention" in order to make it appear as if it's a bonafide offer. How many times has this guy taken this to court? I guess none. The only way these patents stand up is when you take a half dozen or so to court.

     

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  •  
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    keepsea (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 11:48am

    Why not sue USPTO?

    "It's a shame they can't sue the USPTO"

    Why not? I am not American - do you Americans have some kind of law that you cannot sue any office funded by taxpayers money or something like that?

    It seems to me that if they patent stuff that is not supposed to be patented for obviousness and cause damage by doing that... just sue the bastards!

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 1:22pm

      Re: Why not sue USPTO?

      Yes, it's called sovereign immunity.

      As it happens, though, people sue the USPTO all the time. It's just that the government gets to decide what you can sue the government for. And damages from an improperly granted patent aren't among them.

       

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  •  
    identicon
    staff, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 1:14pm

    ridiculous and biased

    "claims that a ton of companies have, in fact, licensed this ridiculous patent"

    If the companies you say have taken a license, it would seem unlikely that the patent is "ridiculous" and that it is equally unlikely a "shakedown". It is you who appears ridiculous and biased.

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 1:24pm

      Re: ridiculous and biased

      So because a company takes a license that automatically makes the patent non - ridiculous? How is that a reasonable argument?

       

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    •  
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      Mike Masnick (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 1:54pm

      Re: ridiculous and biased

      If the companies you say have taken a license, it would seem unlikely that the patent is "ridiculous" and that it is equally unlikely a "shakedown". It is you who appears ridiculous and biased.

      If it's cheaper to pay the $80k then to fight an obviously bad patent, then it probably makes (short term) economic sense for the companies to pay. That doesn't mean that patent is valid. I would think that was obvious.

       

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      •  
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 2:32pm

        Re: Re: ridiculous and biased

        "If it's cheaper to pay the $80k then"

        At first I thought it was a typo but the problem seems to be a continuing one.

        than to fight *

        Now I'm really sure you know the difference. Either

        A: You're sick and really should get some rest.

        B: You haven't gotten any sleep lately and need to get some sleep.

         

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 3:57pm

      Re: ridiculous and biased

      I'd ask you to explain how the patent is anything other than a joke, but that would be pointless, right?

       

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