Patents As Weapons: How 1-800-CONTACTS Is Using The Patent System To Kill An Innovative Startup
from the shameful dept
We’ve talked many times about how patents are often used as weapons to kill innovative startups that threaten legacy players. Ryan alerts us to a perfect example of this in practice. 1-800-CONTACTS, the giant online contact lens/glasses space, is trying to kill off an upstart innovative competitor called Ditto. And, no, this is not a case of Ditto copying something that 1-800-CONTACTS invented. The details are astounding. First of all, Ditto’s main innovation is doing something that 1-800-CONTACTS does not do (though it has since announced plans to introduce something similar), which is to let buyers of glasses take a quick webcam video of their face, and then be able to see what they would look like in various pairs of glasses. That’s pretty cool. The 15 person startup got some funding for this… and then promptly got sued by the bigger company. And 1-800-CONTACTS’ actions in this case show that it set out, deliberately, to kill off this innovative startup:
It appears that 1-800-CONTACTS’ CEO went onto Ditto’s website the very day it launched, presumably to investigate the upstart competitor’s new technology. Having seen Ditto’s product, 1-800-CONTACTS then went out and purchased a patent from a defunct company that claims to cover selling eyeglasses over a network using a 3D model of a user’s face.
But here’s the thing: 1-800-CONTACTS does not appear at all interested in licensing the patent to Ditto. Rather, it seems determined to put Ditto out of business. Period. So it’s suing Ditto in federal court in Utah, hundreds of miles from Ditto’s headquarters in California.
Yes, you read that right. First, the CEO went and saw the site, then sought out and bought a patent that could be used against the company (in this case, US Patent 7,016,824), then brought suit in a very inconvenient jurisdiction and, finally, isn’t even entertaining the idea of licensing the patent. And, of course, the patent itself seems highly dubious in quality. Ditto thinks it would win the lawsuit, but spending what little money it has on litigation will almost certainly kill the company anyway. Even if it wins, it will likely lose by using up its money not on innovating, not on delivering a great service to people who want it, but on fighting a bully.
The EFF is asking for help in finding prior art for this patent, via StackExchange’s prior art section, in the hopes that the patent can be invalidated quickly. In the meantime, though, shame on 1-800-CONTACTS for being an anti-innovation legal bully. Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve written about 1-800-CONTACTS doing dubious things against competitors. In the past, it’s sued competitors for keyword ads, despite having lost similar cases and despite buying keywords on competitors itself. It seems that the company is willing to use the legal system to crack down on competition whenever it can, which makes it seem like a company worth avoiding when looking for any kind of corrective lens solutions.