IBM lobs sueball at travel site Expedia for using some old Prodigy patents

Big Blue is trippin' over 1980s web tech

IBM has filed suit against online travel giant Expedia alleging violation of four patents that harken back to the early days of dial-up internet.

Big Blue has accused Expedia and several of its subsidiary travel sites, including Orbitz, Hotwire, and Hotels.com of infringing four patents related to the operation of browser-based applications and stored conversations.

The patents at issue in the case are:

  • US Patent 5,796,967, described as a "A method for presenting applications in an interactive service" and outlining how the interface of a web-based application can be used to shift processing tasks from a server to a client PC. It was first filed in 1989.
  • US Patent 7,072,849, titled "method for presenting advertising in an interactive service" explains how web services can put ads on client machines. It dates back to 1988.
  • US Patent 5,961,601, titled "preserving state information in a continuing conversation between a client and server networked via a stateless protocol" describes a way to preserve communications over a web browser via a CGI program. It was filed in 1996.
  • US Patent 7,631,346, described as "a method, system, apparatus, and computer program product are presented to support computing systems of different enterprises that interact within a federated computing environment" describes a way to handle single sign-on with a service provider who then uses the credentials with other services. It was filed in 2005.

While IBM is the original holder of all four patents, the two earlier filings, the '967 and '849 patents, were actually developed for Prodigy, the ISP project Big Blue helped launch in the 1980s.

As part of the development of Prodigy, IBM claims, engineers had to come up with a way to help offload the processing traditionally done by a server or mainframe system to the client-end.

"The inventors believed that to be commercially viable, Prodigy would have to provide interactive applications to millions of users with minimal response times. The inventors believed that the 'dumb' terminal approach that had been commonly used in conventional systems, which heavily relied on host servers’ processing and storage resources for performance, would not be suitable," IBM said.

"As a result, the inventors sought to develop more efficient methods of communication that would improve the speed and functionality of interactive applications and reduce equipment capital and operating costs."

How does Expedia run afoul of this decades-old tech? According to IBM, Expedia and Orbitz, both directly and through the other travel sites they operate, are infringing by offering their web apps across multiple devices (such as a desktop and smartphone) "at which the applications requested can be presented as one or more screens of display."

Additionally, IBM says, Expedia's handling of user sign-ons over multiple sites runs afoul of the '346 patent, while its hotel and rental reservation systems violate the '602 patent on 'stateless' conversation records.

IBM claims it has been trying to secure licensing deals, both with Expedia and with Orbitz (prior to its 2015 acquisition by Expedia) since 2011, to no avail. Now, it is taking the matter to court.

The claims against the travel sites may not seem compelling, but IBM has good reason to believe the suit will bring results. Just one day before the Expedia suit was filed, Big Blue said it had secured a licensing deal with travel company Priceline on the exact same patents.

Expedia declined to comment on the suit. ®

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