Technology firms are often hampered by patent disputes, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office called into question last week a patent that had the potential to disrupt the habits of millions of Internet users.
The PTO rejected all 20 patent claims over Internet subdomains held by a company called Hoshiko, which were used to bully sites like LiveJournal and Freehomepage.com and pursue litigation against larger companies like Google. The idea behind how to manage subdomains--domains hosted within larger domains, such as news.cnet.com--is too obvious to patent, the PTO ruled after the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation requested the patent be re-examined.
The EFF was able to provide ample evidence that the idea of virtual subdomains had developed long before a company called IdeaFlood applied for the patent in 1999 or was granted the patent in 2004. Nevertheless, the company used its patent to threaten companies like LiveJournal, which hosts more than 3 million personalized subdomains for its users. The company also threatened Freehomepage.com and T35 Hosting.
IdeaFlood acted more aggressively against larger companies, filing suit against Google in October 2004 and against About.com in May 2005. The Google case was dismissed in March 2005, and IdeaFlood reached a settlement with About.com within months.
With both disputes short-lived, neither company pushed back that hard against the validity of IdeaFlood's patent, so EFF filed its own complaint, said Michael Kwun, a senior staff attorney for EFF.
"It's an incremental process of change in the world of patents," he said.
The patent rights were transferred to Hoshiko after IdeaFlood's two lawsuits came to a close. The company now has two months to try to narrow its patent claims to make them more reasonable or convince the PTO to reverse its January 15 ruling.
Meanwhile, judicial actions like the Supreme Court's 2007 decision in KSR v. Teleflex have chipped away at the threat of dubious patents, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has called patent reform his top priority.