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.