Spam Filtering? Patented! 36 Companies Sued

from the uh... dept

These kinds of lawsuits are coming fast and furious again these days. Glyn Moody points us to the news that 36 companies have been sued for patent infringement in Marshall, Texas (of course) for supposedly violating a patent (6,018,761) on spam filtering. The companies sued represent a who’s who of corporate America, including Apple, Google, HP, RIM, Citigroup, Capital One, Alcatel Lucent, AIG, AOL, JP Morgan Chase, McAfee, Symantec, Yahoo, IBM and many others.

The patent itself is rather simple. So simple, I can repeat the entire claims section right here (not the abstract, the actual claims). Also, note how many typos there are. You would think, in such a short patent, someone would have caught typos like “usinig,” “processine” and “usefiul.”:

What is claimed is:

  1. A method of obtaining context information about a sender of an electronic message using a mail processing comprising the steps of:

    scanning the message, usinig the mail processine program to determine if the message contains a reference in a header portion of the message to at least one feature of the sender’s context, wherein the sender’s context is information about the sender or the message that is usefiul to the recipient in understanding more about the context in which the sender sent the message;
    if the message contains such reference, using the mail processing program and such reference to obtain [sender] the context information from a location external to the message;
    if the message does not contain such reference, using the mail processing program and information present in the message to indirectly obtain the [sender] context information using external reference sources to find a reference to the [sender] context information.

  2. The method of claim 1, wherein the reference to at least one feature is a reference to a location where context information is stored.
  3. The method of claim 1, wherein the reference to at least one feature is a hint usable to retrieve a location where context information is stored.

How could someone possibly approve this as a patent? This is about as basic a filter as you can imagine. Someone should sue the USPTO for fraud on America for approving this patent.

In the meantime, the press release announcing the lawsuit is funny as well. The lawyers claim “the company’s patent is one of the building blocks for all email communications. InNova’s complaint alleges that the defendant companies have used InNova’s invention without permission for years.” Please, don’t make everyone laugh. It is not one of the “building blocks for all email communications.” It’s a basic filter that any first year programmer could have written in no time flat.

Oh, but it gets better:

“Email as we know it would essentially stop working if it weren’t for InNova’s invention,” says Mr. Banys… “More than 80 percent of email is spam, which is why companies use InNova’s invention rather than forcing employees to wade through billions of useless emails. Unfortunately, the defendants appear to be profiting from this invention without any consideration for InNova’s legal patent rights.”

First of all, actual spam filtering is a hell of a lot more sophisticated than the methods in this patent, and the idea that email would stop working without this patent existing is pretty laughable. This is such a basic concept that it boggles the mind that anyone thought it was patentable.

While the initial link above refers to InNova as a “Texas company,” as per usual, it appears to be such in name only. There is no information as to who’s actually behind the company, but it seems likely they’re not based in Texas. The only reason the company is “based in Texas” is to file a lawsuit in Marshall. At the very least, InNova does have a very simple website where it pretends that it actually does something and has a “portfolio” of patents. Except, if you dig deeper, you see it’s just this single patent. But my favorite part of the webpage is this opening paragraph:

Ours is a world of technology, where companies are measured, by their customers, their competitors and the media, by the quality, utility and innovation of their products. Because no single company has a lock on innovation, InNova Patent Licensing LLC offers medium- and large enterprises creative solutions to the problem of staying relevant in today’s business climate.

InNova has no customers, competitors or products. All it has is a painfully ridiculous patent. And it’s trying to lock down innovation. What a joke.

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Companies: google, rim, yahoo

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Comments on “Spam Filtering? Patented! 36 Companies Sued”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I find this point really frustrating. Just because one supports patents in general does not mean that one supports all patents. Even patent supporters will admit that there are bad patents. Frankly, this one sems pretty easy to defend against.

While RJR and staff might be off their rockers they provide a lot more interesting reading than the echo chamber style of you techdirt fanboys.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

While RJR and staff might be off their rockers they provide a lot more interesting reading than the echo chamber style of you techdirt fanboys.

Wait, what? RJR/staff won’t discuss bad patents (they insist if the USPTO issued the patent, it’s a good patent). They won’t discuss evidence. They won’t discuss the studies that show the harm done by patents. They blatantly insist that even independent invention is “stealing.”

They also resort to regular insults (RJR specifically insulted my parents and suggested they beat me as a child).

In the meantime, many of the folks in the comments here who are against patents, are polite, respectful, know how to use basic English, and provide detailed explanations and back up their positions with data and evidence.

If you honestly think this is just an echo chamber of fan boys, then go away. Seriously. Go find a real echo chamber somewhere and live in ignorance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Didn’t mean to touch a nerve there Mike. I don’t agree with or support RJR/staff. But it is more interesting/entertaining than the all too common ‘of course its in texas’ and ‘ time to get rid of patents’ type of comments that *always* appear in the comments on articles like this one.

Nearly every time I have posted a comment in support of patents said fanboys have labeled me a troll or a shill. I do not find that polite or respectful.

I would not read techdirt if I did not find some of the stuff here worth my time. At the same time, there is a lot of redundancy in the comments.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

I should patent an algorithm to identify and weed out ridiculous patent lawsuits. Then I can put out a press release like this:

“The court system as we know it would essentially stop working if it weren’t for my invention,” says Josh… “More than 80 percent of patent lawsuits are ridiculous, which is why the court system uses my invention rather than forcing judges to wade through billions of useless lawsuits. Unfortunately, the defendants appear to be profiting from this invention without any consideration for my legal patent rights.”

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

The Paper Prior Art

In respect of Patent 6,018,761, you might look at:

G. A. Campbell, _The Civil Service in Britain_, 1955, Penguin [Pelican] paperback edition, pp. 126-140, 275-282.

Campbell was, among other things, a government film producer, producing documentaries, and then, during the Second World War, producing propaganda films, After the war, he made his way to commercial television. For purposes of instruction, he described the workings of a Ministry of Films, that is, what his old department would have looked like if it were scaled up to the size of the BBC, but kept within the Civil Service instead of being spun off as a government-owned corporation. Such a department would have produced films, but it would also have owned chains of movie theaters, with all the administrative folderal implied thereby.

Campbell describes in some detail what happened to an incoming letter in a government agency, circa 1950, how it was enclosed in a manila folder (color-coded according to urgency), how related correspondence was looked up, how various things were written on the outside of the folder, how the letter was cross-referenced into ledgers in the department archive (the registry), how inquiries were made to discover if other agencies knew anything about the correspondent or the matter in discussion, etc. etc. Campbell’s pedagogic example, which he uses to frame his discussion of how the Civil Service works, is a man with a failing vaudeville theater, a real certified lemon, who is firmly convinced that if he just puts enough energy into corresponding with various agencies, his Member of Parliament, etc., the government will buy him out at a handsome valuation. So the theater owner and the government department have the same conversation, over and over again.

Needless to say, this reference is not cited in the patent, which does not seem to have anything before 1995. Spam is not really new– it is simply a special case of “frivolous correspondence,” which has been known in government bureaucracies for at least two hundred years. There are some very comical nineteenth-century Irish references. You could be incredibly crazy in nineteenth-century Ireland without being put in a nuthouse. The only novelty about spam is that computers make frivolous correspondence cheap enough to be directed at random individuals, and that the standard techniques for coping with frivolous correspondence have to be worked up into computer programs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just some observation:

The original application was filed in 1996

The application issued as a patent in 2000

The original application was assigned to a charitable trust that appears to have been a part of the UC Berkley endownment (though this is not something about which I am certain)

It seems more likely than not that this patent, while assigned to the trust, wan not the subject of any significant licensing activities

It seems more likely than not that the trust “cashed out” the patent to a part(y/ies) unknown that subsequently formed a Limited Liability Company (note: not all states require LLC to publicly identify their principals)

Having bought out the trust’s ownsership of the patent, the LLC is now shopping around for ways to secure a return on its investment

Most importantly of all, with tort reform underway in many, if not most, states, law firms devoted to personal injury litigation, which are experiencing reduced income as a result of tort reform, and looking anywhere and everywhere for anything that may help pick up the financial slack. While some firms associated with the pejorative term “trolls” are in fact firms that practice all aspects of IP law (Niro in Chicago comes to mind), it appears they are in the minority as personal injury law firms get into the high stakes money “game”. The important point to take away is that firms with true patent practices are generally not the types of law firms behind so many of these lawsuits. To exclaim “look what patent lawyers are now doing” is for the most part incorrect.

Hedge funds have also entered the picture, treating patents an a speculative investment in a negotiable instrument.

To the extent there is a problem with these types of lawsuits, almost invariably it is as a result of groups treating patents as pieces of paper (akin to mortgages, unpaid debts, etc.), and not as is the case with most patents that are retained by inventors or employers to confer some measure of protection for market penetration.

There are always exceptions to matters such as this, but for the most part patents are not used in the manner exemplified by this lawsuit.

interval (profile) says:

Re: Re:

@AC: *snipped* “…It seems more likely than not that the trust “cashed out” the patent to a part(y/ies) unknown that subsequently formed a Limited Liability Company (note: not all states require LLC to publicly identify their principals)…”

Exactly. Which brings me to a serious question; is it possible that every time a patent changes hands the new owner can expect to levy a new round of licensing fees? AND GET THEM?

Stop the madness!

TAMbot says:

I for one cannot believe that utter tripe. I see when it is a small company innovating against the big guys you shill for it’s a horrific lie of a patent, but when the RIAA tries to protect it’s legitimate business interests you think it’s overly zealous. Whay don’t you just face the facts that your bias makes anything you say seem ridiculous!

Tim (profile) says:


I work as a hardware engineer, designing processors. I also code in C++ for validation testing. Compilers take the C++ code and convert it to assembly instructions the processor can understand. The processor instructions can all be represented by math operations–and, or, shift, store in a variable (register or memory), compare, etc. At an even more basic level, the synthesis flow will convert it to a bunch of logic gates or storage elements. So all software is just boolean algebra–although lots and lots of it.

Is it possible to sue the USPO claiming all software is just math operations, so all software pattens are invalid? In one swoop take care of all these issues…

KnightHawk says:

Email Spam filtering?

Um this patent was filed in Dec. 11 1996. So was I using this patent? Outlook Express well actual started out as Microsoft Internet Mail came out in 1996 then change the name to Outlook Express in 1997. . Now when I was using this program I was using it’s rules to filter out junk mail. Does that mean I was using the simple method for spam filter and using someones patent?

The patent sounds very stupid and basic.

GregM says:

Not the way that many features of spam blockers work

Most spam blocking techniques don’t need to get any contextual information about the sender to block the message.
DNSBL uses the connection IP
SPF uses the connection IP and senders email domain and helo or ehlo
SURBL uses the domain portion of a URL
Basic filters sender domain, sender email address, IP address, within IP range
Regular expressions against the Sender, From, To, CC, BCC, Subject, Body, Attachment Names, Attachments, do not have to reference contextual information in the headers gathered externally.
Most rules that users implement on their client do not use contextual information in the headers, but are standard data elements of the message.

I say this company probably doesn’t have a claim.

Nick Nicholas (profile) says:

Two Words Will Make This Case Go Away

I have only two words for these idiots: “Prior art”. Then the judge in the case will have four words for the plaintiffs: “Summary judgment. Case dismissed.”

I was a professional spam fighter from 1996 to 2007. I’d be more than happy to serve as an expert witness for ANY of the defendants at no charge. Well, it would be nice if they covered my expenses to get to the courtroom. John Levine would be a better witness, however, because he has those three little letters that tend to impress judges and juries when it comes to expert testimony: Ph.D.

I suspect those who were bashing patents upthread weren’t targeting *all* patents (which are explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution), but rather software and business methods patents which are a quite contentious issue. I tend to agree with those who say software should NOT be patentable.

Anonymous Coward says:

not a patent for spam filtering

First; I agree that this patent will be held to be invalid. Obvious / not novel / you name it.

Second; I agree that software processes are not appropriate subject matter for patents.

Third; this patent is not for filtering of any sort (to include spam). Instead it is for using header data fields to identify additional information about the sender.

Now, this might be how some spam filters work… beats me – but the claims (all three of ’em) have no filtering capabilities.

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