For some time now, so-called patent trolls have aggressively targeted the biggest tech companies in the world. Now, they seem to be setting their sights on large media companies too. A shell company in Delaware is suing Bloomberg, the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) Co and four other news giants for infringing a patent related to “autocomplete” software — the process that allows computer users to receive suggestions for completing a word after they type a few letters.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit bears all the markings of a so-called patent troll — entities that do not invent or produce anything but simply acquire patents in order to sue companies with deep pockets.
The plaintiff is something called Boadin Technologies LLC. Because it is registered in Delaware, one of three states with notoriously lax business regulation, it is not possible to determine the identity of the beneficial shareholders behind the company, but the chances are good that they are lawyers. The lawsuit does not specify damages, but plaintiffs in these cases typically demand millions in return for a license to make them go away.
The patent filing itself shows that it was issued in 2010 and licensed to Aloft Media, a company controlled by two Silicon Valley lawyers who are reported to have sued at least 20 companies, including Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT). It is likely that Aloft Media sold the patent rights to whomever is behind Boadin Technologies.
The “invention” is credited to one Gal Arav, a media entrepreneur with ties to MIT. It is for “computer program [which] assists in the completion of text input provided by a user,” specifically in regard to stock symbols. This would appear to refer to the process whereby a computer user types “s-t-a-r-b” and then is prompted to enter “SBUX” (the Starbucks (NSDQ: SBUX) ticker symbol). Media companies regularly include ticker symbols in stories written for business clients. The lawsuit does not refer to a particular software program but says that the technology is being used by the websites of Bloomberg, the New York Times, USA Today, CNBC (NSDQ: CMCSA), Fox (NSDQ: NWS) Business and Market Watch.
I am no expert on software design but it is something of a surprise that the U.S. patent office did not reject this invention for being obvious — after all, autocomplete software has been around for at least a decade for word processing and Internet browsers. Ironically, this lawsuit coincides with the passing of much-ballyhooed patent reform legislation and comes as a reminder that the new law will do little to keep the companies whose businesses are built on suing over patents away from America’s major companies.