Blog Post

Super troll sues Netflix, Yelp, dozens more over Autocomplete

This one’s a doozy even by patent troll standards. A shell company that is already suing Apple (s aapl) and Nokia (s nok) over a common autocomplete feature is now branching out to file dozens of new patent claims against online video firms and retailers.

In complaints filed in Delaware last week, Data Carriers LLC claims that Yelp (s yelp), LinkedIn (s lnkd), Target, Wal-Mart (s wmt), Netflix (s nflx) and others infringed US Patent 5,388,198 for “Proactive presentation of automating features to a computer user.”

In plain English, Data Carriers is saying it owns a feature in which a user enters a few letters and the rest of the word appears. Consumers use the feature all the time in cell phones, websites or on movie selection menus like the one used by Netflix.

Apple and others are fighting the claims. After it was sued in March for including autocomplete in its iPhone, iPad and Safari browser, Apple asked a court to throw the case out because Data Carriers had pled only “legal boilerplate” not facts.

Overall, the dozens of autocomplete cases are yet another example of the spread of patent trolls. Trolls, more politely known as non-practicing entities, don’t make anything tangible but instead make a business of amassing patents in order to sue companies that do. They are hard to stop because, as shell companies, they are not vulnerable to counter claims. A new study says they are costing the economy $29 billion a year.

Richard Kirk, the lawyer for Data Carriers, is also representing another troll who last week sued Facebook (s fb) and Amazon (s amzn) or using the common data storage system, Hadoop. Contacted by GigaOM, Kirk refused to say who is paying for the patent trolls to pursue their legal campaign.

The autocomplete patent was originally issued in 1995 to software maker Symantec (s symc) which transferred it earlier this year. It’s unclear if Symantec is tied to Data Carriers or if it sold the autocomplete patent outright.

Here’s a copy of the complaint against Netflix:

Data Carriers v Netflix

12 Responses to “Super troll sues Netflix, Yelp, dozens more over Autocomplete”

  1. kinkfisher

    This patent doesn’t really cover autocomplete as we know it. The claims actually cover a type of autocomplete for *features* or *commands* rather than *strings*, whereby it monitors user inputs via mouse or keyboard (or, broadly, any other input methods) and probabilistically guesses what the user is trying to *do* (rather than what he’s trying to *say*), and then auto-suggests the appropriate feature as a better alternative to the user.

    For instance, as described in the last two paragraphs before the claims, if a user is trying to sum a sequence of cells in a spreadsheet by adding individual cells (B1 + B2 + B3 +…), it suggests using @sum(B1:B7) instead, where B8 is the cell into which the formula was being inserted. This could be detected if the user was typing “B1 + B2 +…” on the keyboard or if the user was selecting the cells B1, B2, … etc. and using the + operator for each using a mouse. Another example is where a user enters a series of keyboard shortcuts in a word processor, and the invention guesses which feature the user is navigating towards and proactively presents it.

    The claims are very broadly written, but it is only this specific invention they cover and nothing else. There is no way they can interpret this to cover autocomplete as we know it. Misrepresenting patents like this only serves to muddy the waters and distract from the real problems with the patent system.

      • kinkfisher

        Did you read what I wrote? Can you show me a single example in any shell that can do something like replace “B1 + B2 + … + B7” with “sum(B1:B7)”? Command-line completion in Unix shells is literally nothing more than string-based autocomplete, which is exactly what I said the patent does NOT cover.

  2. Prior art *definitely* exists on Windows PCs.

    Microsoft Money 1.0 (1991) had a feature called SmartFill that works *exactly* the way every autocomplete works today, and it was released four years before the Symantec patent. I was the Program Manager for Money 1.0, so I know it well. It was a method for saving people time typing in payees (why type in “American Express” over again when you can type in “Ame” and Money would do the rest).

    Ironically, Microsoft didn’t file for a patent on SmartFill because, at the time, BillG didn’t think software patents were good for the industry.

  3. twospruces

    Read the claims and decide if you can logically prove invalid the issued patent. repeat – issued patent. Maybe there will be a contest soon to find killer prior art!

  4. Jack Repenning

    Wait, wait, wait. Digital Equipment Corporation provided autocompletion (at the “console” of some computers) in the 1960’s!

  5. twospruces

    Owning IP is a perfectly valid way to make money, provided the IP is perfectly valid and you have money!
    I don’t have a problem with IP owners enforcing their rights.

  6. BongBong

    “Troll” is not a word that should be used by anyone who intends to be taken seriously when it comes to intelligent discussions regarding patents, which are private property. As property, patents may or may not be used to protect or advance their interests economically. Calling a patent owner is a “troll” because they advance an interest that is counter to your own is absurd.

    • Thanks for your comment, BongBong. Re: the use of “troll”, I think the term has become so commonplace that one can use it and still be taken seriously (heck, the great Judge Richard Posner recently used it in the Atlantic).

      But on a more substantive note, I think we have to be careful of attempting to shut down the debate by invoking “private property.” Patents are not like other property in that they are a temporary monopoly created by the government. And in recent years, these monopolies have run amok with considerable harm to the innovation system.

      Do you think the current patent system is effective at promoting? Or do you think it is being gamed by lawyers for their own benefit?

      • Jeff, I think that your reply is pretty much right on the money, with one glaring exception: it is not (at least in most cases) the lawyers that are “gaming” the process, but the NPEs. Sure lawyers are helping, but without the client, the lawyer has not case.