Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hipmunk Raises Money... And Is Immediately Threatened By Patent Troll

from the innovation-tax dept

Hipmunk, if you're unfamiliar with it, is a wonderful travel search site, which really thought hard about how to make searching for flights and other travel info much more useful and intuitive. For me, personally, it's almost entirely replaced other sites like Expedia. A few weeks back the company announced on its blog that it had received $15 million in funding and also mentioned that it was doing okay in the revenue department. These days, that's both a sign for celebration... and blood in the water for patent trolls. I recently spoke to a lawyer for a decently large startup that isn't making any revenue, who has said that he's been contacted by patent trolls, who basically just keep circling, saying they won't sue until his company is making money, and then they'll pounce. It appears something similar happened with Hipmunk.

Just days after the announcement, a "company" (and I use that term loosely) called i2z contacted them, demanding they obtain a license, according to a report by Jeff Roberts. i2z is already suing a ton of travel/location companies, including Google, Travelocity, TripAdvisor, Yelp and more in Delaware (while not as famous as Eastern Texas for patent lawsuits, Delaware has been getting some attention as a "favorable" venue for patent trolls). It has also sued Hotels.com in a separate action... in Texas (northern district, not eastern) and Microsoft in Oregon. Of course, i2z (like so many patent trolls) appears to just be a patent lawyer, based in California: Rakesh Ramde.

The patent in question (5,345,551) covers a "Method and system for synchronization of simultaneous displays of related data sources." It was originally issued all the way back in 1994 to Brigham Young University... who held onto it until just about a year ago when it was assigned to "Gregory Cuke" who appears to be a real estate guy in Longview, Texas. And, yes, it turns out that i2z, despite actually being a lawyer in California, is technically based in Longview, Texas. Ramde claimed that Hipmunk violated claim one of the patent, which reads (in its entirety):
1. A system for synchronizing the presentation of data on a digital computer display, comprising:
first and second window-controlling means, each of said window-controlling means displaying information in at least one display window,
a synchronization control means, and
means for communications between said synchronization control means and each of said first and second window-controlling means;
wherein said first window-controlling means displays first information from a first source, and said second window-controlling means displays second information from a second source;
wherein said first information and said second information have sections, and at least one section of said second information corresponds to a section of said first information;
wherein said first window-controlling means sends a message to said synchronization control means over said means for communications indicating a change in viewing position to a new section of said first information;
wherein said synchronization control means sends a message to said second window-controlling means over said means for communications requesting a change in viewing position to a section of said second information corresponding to said new section of said first information; and
wherein said second window-controlling means displays said corresponding section of said second information on at least one display window.
In response, rather than letting i2z shop for its favorite forum, Hipmunk went to court in Northern California, asking for a declaratory judgment saying that (1) Hipmunk does not infringe and (2) the patent isn't valid anyway. On that first point, it seems that Hipmunk has a reasonably strong argument, since the whole point of the claim seems to involve multiple windows, and Hipmunk displays everything in a single window.

Either way, this is the kind of crap that tons of companies face. The second they're deemed even slightly successful, they get hit with patent infringement claims from non-practicing entities, wielding broad and vague patents that have nothing to do with what the company is really doing. And people still don't think this is a problem?

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