A firm owned by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen today sued Apple, Facebook, Google, YouTube, and seven other companies, charging them with infringing patents filed more than a decade ago.
Google and Facebook blasted the lawsuit as "unfortunate" and "without merit."
The complaint, filed Friday morning in a Seattle federal court, named AOL, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, Yahoo and Google's YouTube.
AOL, Apple, Google and Yahoo were each charged with four claims of patent infringement, while Facebook was hit with one. The other eight companies were charged with two claims each.
The suit does not name Microsoft, which Allen co-founded with Bill Gates in 1975 but left in 1983 after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. Microsoft did not reply to a request asking whether it had licensed some or all of the applicable patents from Allen's firm.
Allen's lawsuit claimed that the 11 companies violated patents developed by Internal Research, a Silicon Valley research lab he funded in 1992, but which shut its doors in 2000. David Liddle, who worked at the Xerox's influential Palo Alto Research Center ( Xerox PARC) in the 1970s, was Interval's CEO.
Those patents were later transferred to Interval Licensing, a company owned by Allen.
The two patents that make up the bulk of the claims are 6,263,507, "Browser for Use in Navigating a Body of Information, With Particular Application to Browsing Information Represented By Audiovisual Data," and 6,757,682, "Alerting Users to Items of Current Interest." Allen's lawsuit alleges that all but Facebook violated the '507 patent, and all 11 companies infringed the '682 patent.
Interval filed applications for the four patents between March 1996 and September 2000, and was awarded the patents between March 2000 and September 2004.
The '507 patent refers to a possible application in a "news browser" that could be used to "review news stories acquired during one day from several television news programs, as well as from text news sources." The '682 patent, meanwhile, describes technology for alerting users of Web content related to what they're currently viewing, or of others' activities that might interest them.
The '682 patent is the only one that Allen's company claimed was violated by Facebook, the popular social networking site.
The remaining two patents spell out an "attention manager" that would flash advertisements, stock quotes and other information in front of a user.
The 15-page complaint singled out Google for special treatment, saying that Interval Research provided both funding and assistance to the then-fledgling search firm in 1998, the year founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin incorporated the company.
Included with the complaint was a 1998 screenshot of Google's "About" page that showed Interval Research credited as one of four sources of research funding, and one of two outside collaborators.
In a statement Friday, Google called Allen's lawsuit "unfortunate."
"This lawsuit against some of America's most innovative companies reflects an unfortunate trend of people trying to compete in the courtroom instead of the marketplace," said Google. "Innovation -- not litigation -- is the way to bring to market the kinds of products and services that benefit millions of people around the world."
Facebook's take was more blunt. "We believe this suit is completely without merit and we will fight it vigorously," said company spokesman Andrew Noyes in an e-mail.
Allen's suit seeks unspecified damages, as well as injunctions that would block the accused companies from continuing to use the patented technologies.
Earlier this year Forbes put Allen, 57, in the No. 37 spot on its world's richest list, and estimated his net worth at $13.5 billion.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.