After suing media site TechCrunch in 2008 over a controversial GPS patent, Chicago-based Earthcomber is at it again. This time it’s accusing ten online real estate companies of infringing the patent with their iPhone applications. (Note this story has been updated with Earthcomber’s response)
Earthcomber sells apps that allow users to discover nearby bars and events based on their physical location. Such apps rely on the GPS technology in smart phones and are offered by a wide variety of companies.
On Wednesday, Earthcomber filed patent infringement suits in Chicago federal court naming popular real estate sites such as Zillow, RealPage and LoopNet.
The patent in question was issued in 2006 and appears to describe a method of using GPS information to match a user with nearby places of interest:
A location-based and preference-based system and method for matching the profiles of the attributes and/or characteristics of persons, places and/or things with the expressed preferences of mobile users such as travelers, to alert and direct such users to any places having attributes matching the user’s express preferences.
This is not the first time, Earthcomber has tried to enforce this patent. In 2008, it also used US Patent 7071842 to sue mobile social network Loopt and the corporate parent of technology blog TechCrunch. The case was dismissed in 2009.
This time around, Earthcomber has a new law firm and appears to be widening its net of potential defendants. The company’s aspirations may be driven in part by a 2010 licensing deal it reached with restaurant review site, Zagat. It’s unclear if the deal resulted in cash payments or if Earthcomber intends to use the deal as leverage in future litigation. The company did not immediately return a request for comment.
[Update: Earthcomber President Jim Brady said by telephone that Tech Crunch founder Michael Arrington's report (see link above) misrepresents the earlier litigation, and that the parties reached a "business deal" that resulted in the dismissal of the 2008 lawsuit. Brady said he could not elaborate on whether the deal with Tech Crunch, Zagat or Loopt resulted in cash payments.
Brady also said he is not a patent troll and that his company had an early vision of combining Palm (NYSE: HPQ) and Bluetooth technology into one device. He says the patent was the only way to protect himself. "Big money bowls over small app makers like us."]
In the past decade, the technology industry has been beset by an explosion of patent lawsuits, many of them based on “methods” used in the ordinary course of business.
Last year, the federal government passed new legislation that makes it easier for parties to challenge dubious patents. Many of the rules, though, apply only to newly issued patents.
The other new defendants are: Dominion Enterprises, National Association of Realtors, Network Communications, Redfin, Primedia (NYSE: PRM) and Ziprealty.