Google, Yahoo! and Amazon sued over email patent

The biggest names on the internet have been sued by a patent holding company which claims the firms are violating its rights by automatically routing email messages.

The biggest names on the internet have been sued by a patent holding company which claims the firms are violating its rights by automatically routing email messages.

Google, Amazon, Borders, Yahoo!, AOL and Ask.com owner IAC have been named in the suit, filed by Polaris in the famously patent owner-friendly jurisdiction of the Eastern District of Texas.

The patent in question, US patent number 6,411,947, covers the automatic interpretation and answering or forwarding of an email message.

Patent law expert Dennis Crouch, Associate Professor of Law at Missouri University and author of the Patently-O blog, said that the patent had already been the subject of a number of deals.

"This patent has been litigated multiple times already. All prior cases settled well before reaching trial," he said. "This usually indicates that the plaintiff offered a relatively low license fee. A common licensing approach is to offer low license rates to early licensees but charge a higher rate for later 'victims'."

The patent filing says that it covers: "a method for automatically interpreting an electronic message, including the steps of (a) receiving the electronic message from a source; (b) interpreting the electronic message using a rule base and case base knowledge engine; and (c) classifying the electronic message as at least one of (i) being able to be responded to automatically; and (ii) requiring assistance from a human operator."

"The method for automatically interpreting an electronic message may also include the step of retrieving one or more predetermined responses corresponding to the interpretation of the electronic message from a repository for automatic delivery to the source," it said.

Polaris's claim does not make specific allegations about exactly how the patent is violated. It says of Google, for example, that it violates the patent by operating "methods and systems …implementing various websites (including, but not limited to www.google.com) that comprise interpreting electronic messages with rule base and case base knowledge engines as covered by one or more claims of the ‘947 Patent. Defendant Google is thus liable for infringement of the ‘947 Patent".

The Eastern District of Texas is renowned as a court friendly to the interests of patent-holding litigants. According to some observers, though, the courts there are beginning to take a more critical view of patent cases.

"The Eastern District of Texas has seen a flood of patent litigation in recent years based on its reputation as a patent friendly court," said Crouch. "However, that reputation is shifting as the court invalidates more patents."