Thursday, May 29, 2008

Vuestar - Patent Troll?

Background: Vuestar, a Singapore-held company, has sent out letters of demand to Singapore-based companies, claiming that any image-linking is technology that violates their patents. Unsurprisingly, the blogosphere is up in arms about this, claiming that this is ludicrous.

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I'm going to set down some thoughts about this matter. However, I need to set out the following disclaimer.

Yes, I'm a lawyer, but no this is not legal advice or opinion of any sort. Do not rely on this information. If you get a letter of demand, find a patents lawyer and discuss this with him. Please do not ask me for legal help.

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Here are my thoughts, in no particular order of importance.

  1. The Vuestar patent (Full text here. HT Ars Technica for the excellent news report.) appears to cover any sort of image-searching and linking. I'm surprised that a patent this wide was granted in Singapore. I am especially surprised because I would have thought this would be obvious, and obviousness kills patents, at least in the US.
  2. Vuestar's website doesn't disclose any business model apart from licensing their IP rights. I'd have thought that there would be some kind of consultancy, software code to license, etc etc, but no, it's just an IP licensing system. This leads me to think that Vuestar is probably a patent troll. (EDIT: They make mention of some products like Trademark Searches and the such, though it's listed under "Products and Emerging Products". Still rather suspicious. I'm not convinced they actually -have- those products for use, or even if they do, that they are commercially exploitable. Smells like a mask for their real intentions.)
  3. Thing is, patent trolling isn't a new problem. This might be the first time that Singapore has experience it on such a large scale but it's fairly common in the US. What happens is that patent trolls use widely-worded, probably-invalid patents to extract license fees. They are generally successful because companies don't want to fight a lawsuit and the cost of the licensing is probably less than the cost of a court challenge. What is even more annoying is that most patent systems rely on challengers to take down invalid patents.
  4. One more complication aiding the success of patent trolls is that commercial contracts often require relevant intellectual property to remain unchallenged and valid. A challenge of any sort generally triggers a mad scramble to settle these disputes out of court rather than risk a lucrative commercial relationship from going sour.
  5. As I understand it, there are reforms going on in US patent law to stop this kind of behaviour. I'm not quite sure how successful they have been.
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4 comments:

Ivan Chew said...

Hi, Since you're talking about the patent claim, I wonder you're aware of this website and one Singaporean's efforts to gather information to refute the patent claims. See refutevuestarpatent.biz. I think your views (disclaimer noted) is worth being cited over there. Cheers.

Khayce said...

Ivan,

Yes I know about the website. I haven't made that many comments about this issue because I would really like to see how it eventually pens out.

Dr Khoo Chong Yee said...

"In sum, the company implied that any Web site that uses pictures and graphics to link to another site or Web page will need a license from Vuestar."

If that's what they are saying in their letter, then this does not seem to be borne out by the patent. The patent is directed to web searching, not pure hypertext linking. The claims of the Singapore patent appear to cover web searches whose results display a visual image in addition to a hyperlink to the target.

Most of the independent claims also require the entries of the search results list to display "contact information for an organisation" as a component. This is defined in the specification as the "organisation's telephone, e-mail or facsimile contact information".

So the patent, as far as these claims are concerned, would appear to cover web searches which display visual content and contact information.

Does your website do this?

[Note that Claim 34 does not appear to have this limitation]

This is just a quick analysis of the patent done in 10 minutes. It is not to be construed as legal advice. You should neither act or refrain from acting on the basis of this posting.

Contact your patent attorney for more information, preferably a technically qualified patent attorney.

Disclosure: I am a Singapore patent attorney. I have no connection with any of the parties mentioned in the article. I am acting as an interested member of the public.

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