We haven’t heard much from Jay Walker since he left the name-your-own-price travel website Priceline.com in 2000, after its stock slid from $162 to next to nothing in the dot-com bust. Now Walker Digital, the company he founded and still runs, has sued Facebook, claiming that he invented the concept of privacy-protected “friending” that underpins the social network. It’s the fourth patent suit Walker has filed in a bit over a year, and his boldest claim yet.
Walker began diving into the patent-litigation world about a year ago, when he sued Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), Dell and HP (NYSE: HPQ), saying that Microsoft Word infringes another of his patents, which covers searching the internet without closing the word-processor. He then sued Capital One, claiming the credit-card issuer violated two of his patents that cover “customizable credit accounts.” That lawsuit has already been thrown out by a Virginia judge, but Walker is appealing.
Then Walker hooked up with Ocean Tomo, an IP consultancy that in January was trying to sell Walker’s entire patent portfolio, apparently by sending out mass e-mails.
In June of this year, Walker was issued another patent-he continues to invent and receive patents-and sued the Multi-State Lottery Association. That would be the Powerball lottery system used by 31 states and the District of Columbia. He claims they infringe his patent on a “method for applying lottery multipliers.” (Unlike the other Walker patents he is suing over, which were issued about a decade ago, the lottery patent was issued in June 2010, just three months before Walker filed suit.)
There are shades here of Microsoft founder Paul Allen’s recent lawsuit against, well, all of Silicon Valley. Both businessmen left their primary ventures behind to start think-tank-like research groups, then ultimately took patents they filed in the late 1990s and used them to file lawsuits in 2010. But Walker, who was for one brief year a billionaire on paper, surely feels impoverished next to Allen, who is a real billionaire.
In the latest case, Walker says that Facebook’s “friending” mechanism infringes a patent that he and two of his employees secured back in 1999. The patent talks about a way for users to manage their personal information, and “shows how such personal information can be disclosed, at once or incrementally, through the use of an authorization request, such as for example, enabling strangers to become friends.” The patent in the suit is one of more than 500 in Walker Digital’s portfolio.
Walker declined to comment about the Facebook suit.
If Walker continues on this path, just about anyone in e-commerce can expect a knock on the door. Back in 1999 Salon.com noted that “nobody has been more assiduous in patenting internet business ideas than Walker.” The same article asked whether Jay Walker was a “genuine inventor” or an “intellectual-property parasite?” Eleven years later, it would appear that we’re finally getting an answer to that question.
Meanwhile, Priceline is back on a growth path after some difficult years following the dot-com bust. Its stock price has nearly doubled in the past year.