Hipmunk Raises Money… And Is Immediately Threatened By Patent Troll

from the innovation-tax dept

Hipmunk, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a wonderful travel search site, which really thought hard about how to make searching for flights and other travel info much more useful and intuitive. For me, personally, it’s almost entirely replaced other sites like Expedia. A few weeks back the company announced on its blog that it had received $15 million in funding and also mentioned that it was doing okay in the revenue department. These days, that’s both a sign for celebration… and blood in the water for patent trolls. I recently spoke to a lawyer for a decently large startup that isn’t making any revenue, who has said that he’s been contacted by patent trolls, who basically just keep circling, saying they won’t sue until his company is making money, and then they’ll pounce. It appears something similar happened with Hipmunk.

Just days after the announcement, a “company” (and I use that term loosely) called i2z contacted them, demanding they obtain a license, according to a report by Jeff Roberts. i2z is already suing a ton of travel/location companies, including Google, Travelocity, TripAdvisor, Yelp and more in Delaware (while not as famous as Eastern Texas for patent lawsuits, Delaware has been getting some attention as a “favorable” venue for patent trolls). It has also sued Hotels.com in a separate action… in Texas (northern district, not eastern) and Microsoft in Oregon. Of course, i2z (like so many patent trolls) appears to just be a patent lawyer, based in California: Rakesh Ramde.

The patent in question (5,345,551) covers a “Method and system for synchronization of simultaneous displays of related data sources.” It was originally issued all the way back in 1994 to Brigham Young University… who held onto it until just about a year ago when it was assigned to “Gregory Cuke” who appears to be a real estate guy in Longview, Texas. And, yes, it turns out that i2z, despite actually being a lawyer in California, is technically based in Longview, Texas. Ramde claimed that Hipmunk violated claim one of the patent, which reads (in its entirety):

1. A system for synchronizing the presentation of data on a digital computer display, comprising:

first and second window-controlling means, each of said window-controlling means displaying information in at least one display window,
a synchronization control means, and
means for communications between said synchronization control means and each of said first and second window-controlling means;
wherein said first window-controlling means displays first information from a first source, and said second window-controlling means displays second information from a second source;
wherein said first information and said second information have sections, and at least one section of said second information corresponds to a section of said first information;
wherein said first window-controlling means sends a message to said synchronization control means over said means for communications indicating a change in viewing position to a new section of said first information;
wherein said synchronization control means sends a message to said second window-controlling means over said means for communications requesting a change in viewing position to a section of said second information corresponding to said new section of said first information; and
wherein said second window-controlling means displays said corresponding section of said second information on at least one display window.

In response, rather than letting i2z shop for its favorite forum, Hipmunk went to court in Northern California, asking for a declaratory judgment saying that (1) Hipmunk does not infringe and (2) the patent isn’t valid anyway. On that first point, it seems that Hipmunk has a reasonably strong argument, since the whole point of the claim seems to involve multiple windows, and Hipmunk displays everything in a single window.

Either way, this is the kind of crap that tons of companies face. The second they’re deemed even slightly successful, they get hit with patent infringement claims from non-practicing entities, wielding broad and vague patents that have nothing to do with what the company is really doing. And people still don’t think this is a problem?

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Companies: hipmunk, i2z

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Comments on “Hipmunk Raises Money… And Is Immediately Threatened By Patent Troll”

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52 Comments
feda says:

“I recently spoke to a lawyer for a decently large startup that isn’t making any revenue, who has said that he’s been contacted by patent trolls, who basically just keep circling, saying they won’t sue until his company is making money, and then they’ll pounce.”

So basically the troll is running a protection racket, trying to intimidate enterprises into buying a license to reproduce the patented technology by threatening to sue for a much larger sum. Good thing we have the law to take care of those.

Oh wait, the law makes this possible…

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

Re: "The law makes this possible"

The only difference between a Mafia and a government is the Mafia will give you an honest answer about how much violence and humiliation you should expect.

A government, on the other hand, will not. A government will give you freedom-loving lip service and swear you’re perfectly safe with them, all will you’re being bent over to be railed without lube…

*Grrr*

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That sounds a lot like my patent:

A system for fastening material with keyed, rotational fastener, consisting of:
two planes positioned in parallel aligned by identically-keyed circular openings, and a cylindrical, negatively-keyed fastener of with the same diameter as the openings.

Fritzr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It is basically saying that there are two or more views of a single data item/cluster.

For example: In WOW the status bar in the main window shows the player’s gold. Now open a sell dialog where the gold status is repeated and you are seeing infringement of this patent.

Prior are exists. For example a spreadsheet that is able to split the view and then move the focus so that both views display an overlapping range of cells. This feature was available in spreadsheets and graphical databases in the 1980s. Windows 3.x is capable of this and many programs enabled this by generating dialog windows that repeated data displayed in the main window.

All versions of Windows from at least 3.x to Win8 infringe this patent, Mac OSX infringes this patent, Classic Mac (1984 onward) infringes this patent, vioAmigaOS (1985 to present) infringes this patent. Then going to programs… Any photo editor that displays a thumbnail or subsection of the image being edited in a separate window infringes this patent.

This patent troll will need to select victims carefully so that they don’t accidentally go after someone with the money to keep them in court long enough for the judge to make a decision based on the evidence.

Lord Binky says:

Re: Re:

The USPTO has admitted it will essentially allow all patent claims to show how broken the patent system is and this is their effort to encourage congress to reform patent law….
I think it would be much more beneficial for society to #1 fire all the USPTO staff halting all patents and then at some later point, we can try to start the whole thing over from scratch.

Almost Anonymous (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

That’s a good point. We all know that this is extortion, but obviously it’s couched in a ‘civilized’ way, as a lawsuit. But if a company could somehow prove that the patent troll knew about the supposed ‘infringement’ long before they filed a lawsuit (say, once the company has become profitable), it seems to me there could be real grounds to press charges for extortion and racketeering.

Richard (profile) says:

Why?

Why is it that by the time I have read about half a paragraph of this patentese crap – eg

first and second window-controlling means, each of said window-controlling means displaying information in at least one display window,
a synchronization control means, and means for communications between said synchronization control means and each of said first and second window-controlling means; wherein said first window-controlling means displays first information from a first source, and said second window-controlling means displays second information from a second …..

that I find myself losing the will to live?

Is it a deliberate strategy?

Machin Shin (profile) says:

Re: Why?

I think that is indeed the strategy. You write it up like that so when the guy reads it at the patent office he can only get three lines in before stamping it and moving on.

The only way people get these crazy stupid patents is by taking something so simple a two year old can understand it and writing out a description of it in such a way that it takes 3 lawyers half a year to decipher.

Redhip says:

Expired patent?

I’m really curious about why this lawsuit has gone forward. The patent was issued in September of 1994 and any patent issued before June 8, 1995 only had a 17-year lifespan. Thus, this patent expired in September 2011.

According to Wikipedia, Hipmunk was founded in August 2010. I suppose i2z could claim infringement for the final 13 months the patent was in effect and during which Hipmunk was in business. But how can i2z demand a license going forward on an expired patent?

What am I missing? (Note, my browser doesn’t work with scribd.com, so maybe my question is answered in the legal papers.)

alanbleiweiss (profile) says:

I have a patent pending. It’s for “generalized facilitation of the flow of information”. I hope it gets finalized. So I can sue everyone who eats. because eating is central to the ability to think, and thus “remember”.

Maybe it’s time we pool our crowdsourcing efforts to really good use. Bribe enough congress people and the White House to craft a law to make it illegal to troll. And that it’s up to Techdirt readers to decide who the trolls are subject to that law.

Come on people! We can do this!

Violated (profile) says:

Sweet

Hipmunk certainly have a very nice site and efficient service but what most counts these recession days is the price. That though is usually set by airlines and not by the site.

I can say I love both their format and their “agony” option to show balance between price, number of flights and stop over time. Their bar guide to flights is very efficient and makes understanding a long list of flights very easy.

Certainly they are now on my bookmarks but I would recommend to any patent troll that this is clearly a service needing to be nurtured. Should Hipmunk become very popular then they can make much more money that way in a long term gentle licencing deal. Still many claims can be junk and there can also be rivals looking to take them out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just for clarity’s sake, the above attorney is a general practitioner, and not one who is also licensed to practice before the USPTO.

Apparently, he and another attorney (whose bar memberships include practice before the USPTO) have a two person “company” that purports to serve as an intermediary between patentees and groups useful to take an invention to market.

What appears to have happened here is that a patent was assigned to a “subsidiary” of this company last July, the assignment was registered about last November with the USPTO, and then the “take it to market” was a “business plan” consisting of filing lawsuits against a number of companies for infringement occurring during the term of the patent, which is set to expire late this year.

I am not prepared to tar and feather so-called “trolls” in toto because there are circumstances where they serve a useful purpose. However, I will be darned if I can figure out what that useful purpose is here.

For whatever it may be worth, I believe patents oftentimes do serve a useful purpose consistent with the constitutional imprimatur. I believe it is sometimes an unfortunate necessity to pursue litigation. However, in this particular instance I do not see how these two considerations are reasonably met.

To be frank, this matter seems to be more in the nature of simply wielding a legal instrument as a cudgel in the hope of receiving “found money” having nothing at all to do with the policies that underlie our patent laws. In many ways situations such as this remind me of companies who “buy” bad debts is the hope that a few of them will be paid off by the debtors. In this regard it would be helpful to have in hand copies of both the assignment of the patent to 12z, and the letter from i2z to the company that has filed the Declaratory Action lawsuit. Obviously, it would also be nice to have a copy of the contract with 12z spelling out the actual financial terms between 12z and its assignor of the patent. Bad debts are purchased at pennies on the dollar. I wonder if this analogy holds true with respect to the assignment?

Anonymous Coward says:

“non-practicing entities” – I think you need to get over this convoluted phrase. There is absolutely NO requirement in the patent system for a patent holder to specifically produce products. Many companies work on developing new things, obtain patents, and then sell them on. Other company purchase patents from inventors, and sell them on to other companies who choose to use them in future products or in other ways permitted under copyright law – and yes, that includes the dreaded licensing.

Licensing doesn’t work without the backup of legal action. That is to say “license it, or we will be forced to seek redress in the courts”. It’s a pretty standard part of contract style law.

Your misguided attempts to tar and feather every patent holder who hasn’t developed the patent into a finished product is laughable.

A Non Moose says:

Patent/ Copyright Trolls Making Trolls Look Bad In General

Its hard not to chime in on some of these, Techdirts..

At first glance, putting the fear of God to some of these frivilous attempts to extort and block innovation seems like the best bet, but with further analysis, why bother God..

It makes sense that the governing body who supplies these lawfirms, (and I use that term loosely), with the license to steal, extort and otherwise feed frenzily on startups and good intentioned companies trying to make an honest living should be held accountable to continuously oversee the deeds of those for whom they give license. The Bar should be held to the highest degree of liability. Maybe then would the waters be a bit safer to at least wade through, not mentioning treading or swimming.

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