Good news in the fight against bad software patents: a jury in the Eastern District of Texas recently found the Firepond/Polaris patent (U.S. Patent No. 6,411,947) invalid. This patent was on EFF's "Most Wanted" list, targeted because it claimed nothing more than a system using natural language processing to respond to customers' online inquires by email.
EFF was not involved in this case, in which Bright Response, LLC — the technical owner of the patent — sued Google, Inc., Yahoo!, Inc. and eight other companies, alleging that Google's AdWords and Yahoo!'s Sponsored Search infringes the Firepond/Polaris patent. The jury found three of the patent's claims invalid based on the public use bar, obviousness, and for lacking written description. The jury also found that neither Google nor Yahoo! infringed those claims. Finally, the jury found the entire patent invalid due to improper inventorship.
In addition to the jury's findings, the Patent and Trademark Office is nearing completion of a reexamination of the patent, instituted by Google, that narrows the scope of that patent's claims.
"This is a great outcome and good news for people and developers who create new products related to customer service or email," said Patrick King, one of the attorneys assisting EFF on this matter.
Because the court has not yet entered a final judgment, Bright Response could still, in theory, attempt to prohibit others from using the basic natural language processing technology in its patent. EFF is on the lookout for this threatening behavior, so please make sure to let us know if you hear of any. EFF will continue to monitor this case — and the corresponding reexam — and will take action as necessary to fight any additional efforts to use the Firepond/Polaris patent to quash competition and hurt innovation.
"We are still waiting for the court case to finish up and to see if Bright Responses will appeal the decision. If any of the patent is still alive after that, we will do whatever we can to invalidate it, and allow competitors to use this simple technology, which was well known prior to the patent filing," said Gina M. Steele, another attorney assisting EFF with this matter.
The Firepond/Polaris patent was one of the ten original Top Ten Patents targeted by EFF’s Patent Busting Project, which combats the chilling effects of bad patents on the public and consumer interests. So far nine patents targeted by EFF have been busted, invalidated, narrowed, or had a reexamination granted by the Patent Office.