Wired is reporting on a lawsuit filed in US District Court in Texas against Verizon and its now spun-off directory division Idearc. The suit (PDF file) claims infringement of patent 5,930,474, “Internet organizer for accessing geographically and topically based information.” This goes to the essence of many if not most local search sites online today. It has similar mobile search implications as well.
The suit was filed by UK-based Geomas (formerly Yellowone). The company is an IP holding company with no products in the market. It has raised roughly $20 million to date (essentially to support litigation to collect anticipated licensing fees). While Verizon and Idearc are the only named defendants, there are literally scores of companies with local search and mapping applications that might be affected, including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and IAC/Ask among others.
Here’s the relevant excerpt from the patent abstract:
A software interface organizes information predicated upon the geographical area of the resources about which the information is desired. A user is presented with a “viewpoint” map which may comprise, for example, an actual visually displayed map of a selected geographical area, or text information which pertains to the resources associated with the selected geographical area. A geography database, a local content database and a yellow pages database are provided to allow the user to obtain information at different levels. The geography database allows the user to browse through different geographic areas of which are ordered hierarchically, while the local content database includes information about general goods and services available within a given geographic location and the yellow pages database includes information about specific goods and services in the geographic location.
Most recently the US Supreme in a decision called KSR v. Teleflex (PDF file) weakened patent holders’ rights and made it more difficult to obtain patents in cases where inventions were “obvious.” According to Linda Greenhouse of the NY Times:
If the combination results from nothing more than “ordinary innovation” and “does no more than yield predictable results,” the court said in a unanimous opinion, it is not entitled to the exclusive rights that patent protection conveys. “Were it otherwise,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the opinion, “patents might stifle, rather than promote, the progress of useful arts.”
Because most inventions combine previously known elements, the court’s approach to deciding what sort of combination is so “obvious” as to be ineligible for patent protection will have widespread application. The result will be to make patents harder to obtain and defend.
It’s not clear whether the patent claimed by Geomas would fall into this “obvious” category. But what is clear is that if Geomas prevails local search and mapping purveyors near and far could be on the hook for millions of dollars.