In the latest example of patent trolling, a company called Lodsys last week began sending out letters to independent iOS app developers asking them to licensing “patented” technology under the implied threat of litigation. The patent in question – US Pat. No. 7,222,078 – covers “methods and systems for gathering information from units of a commodity across a network.”
Conveniently broad, ain’t it?
More specifically, the abstract states:
In an exemplary system, information is received at a central location from different units of a commodity. The information is generated from two-way local interactions between users of the different units of the commodity and a user interface in the different units of the commodity. The interactions elicit from respective users their perceptions of the commodity.
As a quick aside, why are people able to win patents for broad processes that aren’t accompanied with any technical implementation of said process?
Further complicating things is that the patent rights asserted by Lodsys were acquired in a series of exchanges that originated with Ferrara Ethereal LLC acquiring the patent from Daniel Abelow. This is significant because Ferrara Ethereal LLC is largely considered to be a shell company for Intellectual Ventures, a company that produces nothing and generates revenue solely by licensing out patents and transferring patents to known and aggressive patent trolls.
In any event, IP attorney and part time iOS developer Chad Kirby is able to give us some expert insight into the patent at issue and some of the thornier legal issues on his Seattle Patents blog.
Interestingly enough, Kirby notes that the ‘078 parent may expire in August 2012 since it’s a continuation on a patent that was originally filed in August 1992 with a 20 year timespan for patent protection. If true, this might explain the apparent suddenness behind this patent troll job.
Patent lifespans aside, are targeted iOS developers really infringing on the ‘078 patent?
Does an independent iOS developer make, use, or sell “units of a commodity that can be used by respective users in different locations” or a “component capable of managing the interactions of the users in different locations and collecting the results of the interactions at the central location”? To me, that sounds like Apple, not the iOS developer. Seems like the NPE [Non Practicing Entity i.e Lodsys] would have to rely on an indirect or contributory infringement theory to make that claim stick.
Perhaps the NPE is relying on Claim 69, which is directed to a “method for gathering information from units of a commodity in different locations, each unit of the commodity being coupled to a remote database on a network….”
To make Claim 69 work, it seems like the NPE still has to rely on a contributory infringement theory to go after the iOS developer for “receiving the transmitted perception information from different units of the commodity; and collecting and storing the received information at the remote database.”
I also wonder whether providing in-app purchases reads on “eliciting user perceptions of respective units of the commodity through interactions at a user-interface of the respective unit” and “generating perception information based on inputs of the users at the respective user-interfaces,” as claimed in Claim 69.
It would be interesting to see which claims the NPE is asserting the iOS developers are infringing and how the NPE thinks that the iOS developers are reading on each element of those claims.
Sounds bogus to us, but we’ll see how developers respond to this. Notably, most developers contacted by Lodsys have subsequently contacted Apple to inform them of the situation. The last thing Apple wants is fear to permeate through the developer community.