When it comes to patent trolls, no one is bigger than Intellectual Ventures. The Washington State-based behemoth is at the center of both patent trolling and the debate around patent reform. Though it claims to promote innovation, Intellectual Ventures is behind some of the most outrageous troll campaigns in recent years. Famous for hiding behind thousands of shell companies, it spawned Lodsys, the troll that harassed small app developers, and the Oasis Research litigation featured in This American Life.
This month, Intellectual Ventures filed some fresh lawsuits against targets including JCPenney, Sally Beauty, and flower delivery service Florists’ Transworld Delivery. We checked out the asserted patents to see if any deserved our Stupid Patent of the Month award. All were worthy candidates, but one in particular stood out.
Before we get to the patent, here’s a short script:
DISPATCHER: Hey, is your crew available?
DISPATCHER: We need you to head over to Jimmie’s place and fix his problem.
DISPATCHER: This is Rosie, right?
DISPATCHER: Great. The job has been assigned to you.
This script will probably not win an Academy Award for screenwriting. But how about a patent? As silly as this question may sound, by suggesting implementing this kind of basic crew management using an “enterprise computing system,” a company called ABB, Inc. was able to get a patent. In 2003, the Patent Office issued U.S. Patent 6,633,900 titled “Mobile Crew Management System For Distributing Work Order Assignments To Mobile Field Crew Units” (the ’900 Patent). Intellectual Ventures acquired it in mid-2015.
Claim 1 and Figure 5 of the ’900 Patent best illustrate the banal idea at the center of the patent: crew assignments, but with a computer. The claims outline mundane steps (like the script above) and applies them to a computer environment. For example, one step is “notifying the field crew of the assignment.” Another step is “retrieving and presenting a list of assignments to the field crew.”
Patent claims like these are almost surely invalid under the Supreme Court’s Alice v. CLS Bank decision. But that does not appear to have deterred Intellectual Ventures. Indeed, with such a huge portfolio at its disposal (Intellectual Ventures claims to own more than 40,000 patents), it is astonishing that it would chose to litigate with such a weak patent. This choice raises awkward questions about the overall quality of Intellectual Ventures’ portfolio.
Intellectual Ventures is headquartered in Bellevue, Washington. Florists’ Transworld Delivery (FTD Companies, Inc.) has its headquarters in the Chicago suburbs. But Intellectual Ventures’ lawsuit was filed about as far from these places as possible in the Eastern District of Texas. As we have noted many times before, the Eastern District of Texas is a hotbed of abusive patent litigation. Having chosen to litigate with a plainly invalid patent, it makes sense that Intellectual Ventures would chose a forum where the local rules favor patent plaintiffs.
Venue reform legislation currently before Congress would put an end to this kind of forum shopping. That would help reduce abusive patent trolling. But we need broader patent reform to ensure that patents like this one don’t issue in the first place so that they can never become litigation weapons for trolls like Intellectual Ventures.