updated 09:45 am EDT, Thu May 26, 2011
Visual Interactive sues Apple, US carriers
Non-contributing patent holder Visual Interactive Phone Concepts has sued Apple, AT&T, and US Cellular for allegedly violating two patents for video phones. The three Michigan-based lawsuits claim that the three companies violate the patents, both describing a "videophone interactive mailbox facility system," but through questionable means. Apple was accused of violating the patent simply for making a video-capable phone in the iPhone and offering services like the App Store, iTunes, and the iBookstore; AT&T and US Cellular were both targeted for having music and video services as well as content stores that happened to be on video phones.
The claims stretched the definition of the services to make them fit their descriptions of a mailbox system despite none of the claims targeting messaging or any of the apps in dispute having mailboxes. Any e-commerce system with a main datacenter that facilitated ordering and delivering content qualified, the patent holder argued.
Nevada-based Visual Interactive has sued before, in 2007, but at the time targeted smaller companies less likely to fight back, such as Cricket's parent company Leap Wireless as well as Big Planet and Infogear. It successfully received settlements. The motivation behind the new round of lawsuits isn't clear but is likely to use earlier cases as precedents for targeting wealthier companies.
The firm fits the traditional description of a patent troll as it has no creative output and relies solely on patent royalties and lawsuit settlements for its existence. Accordingly, it has accused the companies of intentionally violating the patents, despite the lack of direct evidence, so that it can collect tripled damages if it gets to a successful trial.
A win, either in a settlement or a court case, could have dangerous repercussions for Google, Motorola, Verizon, and the other companies not yet sued, since they too often have some kind of messaging or content service that would fit the deliberately broadened interpretation of the patents. [via Florian Mueller]