Thursday, March 3, 2011

Microsoft and Google jointly sue GeoTag Inc. in order to invalidate a patent asserted against more than 300 entities

Google and Microsoft have joined forces to take down a Texas company's geotagging patent that they claim has been used in lawsuits against more than 300 entities, many of which are customers of the two companies. Microsoft and Google want to protect Google Maps and Bing Maps against this kind of activity.

A Google VP recently tweeted about two turkeys that don't make an eagle. In this case, we are seeing two giants who separate their fierce competition in various fields from a common interest in curbing trollish behavior.

The patent, US Patent No. 5,930,474, is entitled "Internet organizer for accessing geographically and topically based information". It was applied for in 1996 and granted in 1999. Microsoft and Google say there was prior art at the time of filing that the USPTO didn't take into account.

The complaint, filed in Delaware on March 1, 2011, asks for declaration of invalidity of the patent asserted, judgment that Google's and Microsoft's customers do not infringe any valid claim of the patent, and "a preliminary and permanent injunction precluding GeoTag [and affiliated persons and entities] from suing for infringement or otherwise asserting infringement of the [patent in question] against customers of [Microsoft's and Google's] Mapping Services for store locators or other locators on websites."

I have put together a list of at least 397 (!) different entities that were sued by GeoTag, Inc., most of them (382) in eight suits filed in December 2010 and another 15 in two suits filed in July 2010. The list is in alphabetical order and states for each company the date on which it was sued and the Eastern Texas case number:

11 03 01 GeoTag Defendants

The asserted patent has changed hands several times. Some of the previous owners were based in tax havens like Liechtenstein, the West Indies, and the British Virgin Islands. Approximately two years ago, one entity paid another "an aggregate consideration of nearly $119M for the '474 Patent and some other intellectual property", and it seems that it set up a subsidiary to which it assigned the patent. That subsidiary assumed the name of GeoTag, Inc. last summer.

GeoTag, Inc.'s corporate website presents the business as a technology company, but quite tellingly, that patent is listed prominently on the front page. The scariest thing, apart from almost 400 companies having been sued and the patent having been part (possibly the most important part) of a $119 million transaction, is the fact that GeoTag is in the process of going public. They are looking to raise many millions of dollars to finance their operation. You can find its SEC filings here. Google's and Microsoft's joint action hopefully comes at the right time to prevent further damage.

This isn't the first time for the two companies to side against a patent aggressor. For example, Google filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Microsoft in the i4i case.

These days, Google is particularly busy trying to get various patents invalidated, including the seven Java patents Oracle asserted against it in August. Google has asked the USPTO to reexamine all seven of them. Five of those requests were filed in mid-February and the two remaining ones this week.

It's worth noting that GeoTag is not the only geotagging patent problem Google faces. In Massachusetts, Skyhook is suing Google for the alleged infringement of four geotagging patents particularly by Google Location Services for Android. But Skyhook is not a troll the way I see it. The company claims that it had a license deal in place with Motorola, and apparently another one with Samsung, but Google used its control over Android to prevent those device makers from using Skyhook's technology as a differentiator. Only at that point, Skyhook apparently decided to sue Google over four patents on the one hand and for allegedly anti-competitive interference on the other hand.

That's quite different from a company that acquired a patent that has wandered around various tax havens and sued (at least) 397 companies. There's no indication that Microsoft supports Google against Skyhook, which seems to be an Android-specific issue. But GeoTag now feels the wrath of both of them.

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