Visual Interactive Phone Concepts, Inc., a non-practicing entity that holds two videophone mailbox patents and has previously instigated patent infringement suits, filed three lawsuits in the Eastern District of Michigan on Wednesday: against Apple, AT&T (the largest landline telephony provider and owner of the second largest wireless telecommunications network in the United States), and US Cellular (the seventh largest mobile provider).
In all three complaints, Visual Interactive Phone Concepts asserts both patents it owns: U.S. Patent No. 5,606,361 and U.S. Patent No. 5,724,092, both of which are entitled "videophone interactive mailbox facility system and method of processing information." But the alleged infringements differ, which is presumably why the company filed three parallel suits instead of one multi-defendant complaint.
Those patents were granted in 1997 and 1998. The applications were filed in 1995 and 1996. The patents don't truly disclose an invention in terms of describing a technical solution in sufficient detail so that it could be implemented on that basis. Instead, they outline a concept at such a high level that it's more of a vision than an invention. Those are examples of patents that claim a monopoly on the right to solve a problem rather than a monopoly on a particular solution. Unfortunately, the USPTO does consider them legitimate inventions and issued reexamination certificates in 2010, reaffirming the patents "with only minor amendments to the claims" according to the patent holder's representations in the latest complaints. Reexamination requests had been entered on an anonymous basis.
While they are relatively old, those patents aren't the kind of long-dormant patents asserted by many other trolls. Visual Interactive Phone Systems already sued two companies back in 1999 (Big Planet. Inc. and Infogear Technology Corp.), and also sued Leap Wireless, Inc. in 2007. Those lawsuits were settled, most likely with the net effect of Visual Interactive Phone Systems receiving significant payments.
The infringement accusations in yesterday's complaints relate to e-commerce offerings that include "a central data center that facilitates the order and delivery of [apps, entertainment content, books, PDF documents, etc.]":
Apple is accused of infringement because it makes and sells "mobile communication devices that are videophones." The complaint then lists examples of infringing functionalities and focuses on some of Apple's online stores : "an application service for users to view, download and use applications on their videophones", the iTunes Store, and the iBooks service.
AT&T is sued for providing "a mobile TV and video service in the United States [...] for users to view TV episodes and movies on their videophones", "a mobile music service [...] for users to view and use music and music videos on their videophones", "a Media Net service [...] for users to view and use various media content on their videophones", and "a Media Mall service [...] for users to view and use ringtones, games, videos and other applications on their videophones."
US Cellular's alleged infringements relate to "a mobile TV and video service [...] for users to view TV episodes and movies on their videophones", a "mobile music service ]...} for users to view and use music on their videophones", a "Video Clips service [...] for users to view and use various media content on their videophones", and "a service called easyedge [...] for users to view and use ringtones, games, videos and other applications on their videophones."
The infringement allegations against the two network operators claim that each of their accused services "acts as a mailbox facility system" (in order to somehow make the functionality of those services fall within the scope of the patent claims).
All defendants are accused of "intentional and willful infringement" (which would, if the court agreed, result in treble damages).
Given how broadly that company asserts its patents, I guess Apple was picked only because it's the most profitable mobile device maker but anyone building videophones based on other operating systems (such as Android) will also be asked to pay and, potentially, sued in the future. [Update] Just one day later, this prediction was already proven to have been true as Visual Interactive Phone Concepts sued Google. [/Update]
If you'd like to be updated on the smartphone patent disputes and other intellectual property matters I cover, please subscribe to my RSS feed (in the right-hand column) and/or follow me on Twitter @FOSSpatents.
Share with other professionals via LinkedIn: