Imagine a patent on organizing computer files being used against online shopping sites. Oh, it's still happening

Cyber bazaars push back against infringement claims

In another sign that corporate America has had enough of patent trolls, this week monster retailers Macy's and OfficeMax accused SpeedTrack in court of creating a "fable" – and asked a judge to kill off its patent infringement claims for good.

At a hearing in Oakland, California, lawyers – who are defending web retailers sued by SpeedTrack for allegedly infringing its patent on accessing files in a computer – told the judge the claims against their clients were nothing but "stories" that have no basis in fact.

The patent basically describes a filter-based virtual file system, allowing users to find and open certain documents that match keywords selected from a list. Somehow, according to SpeedTrack, this covers category pages of products listed on shopping websites – categories such as flowers or electronics. Asking to find budget spreadsheets on a computer is the same as asking to be shown children's toys on a website, according to SpeedTrack.

The retailers argued that SpeedTrack's claim for discovery – that is, attempts to acquire the cyber souks' internal documentation as evidence of infringement – should be turned down because SpeedTrack had created "basically a fable of what might have happened."

Incredibly, the hearing is just the latest skirmish in a long-running legal battle that started in 2009. SpeedTrack claimed online souks – including Amazon and Best Buy – were infringing its technology patent by allowing people to look up types of products on their websites. The lawsuit was put on hold while another lawsuit brought by SpeedTrack against Walmart was heard.

SpeedTrack lost the Walmart case in 2016, and in the course of it, won a claim that its patent was valid, opening the doors on its other lawsuit against Macy's, Amazon, et al. It revised its lawsuit in light of the Walmart case, and was back in business – and back in court this week.

The retailers' lawyers were not impressed. Amazon and Best Buy had their own legal eagles who sat at the back, and let Macy's lawyer do the arguing. He claimed the allegations in SpeedTrack's lawsuit make it sound as though the company had interviewed an employee of OfficeMax and discovered that the company snatched its patented technology, when in fact, the court was told, no such an interview ever happened and SpeedTrack was simply making up a fictional conversation about what an employee might have done.

The goal, the lawyer alleged, was to force the retailers to hand over internal documents that SpeedTrack would then scour to find something that looked like infringement of its computer file system patent, and then amend their lawsuit after the fact.

Outrage

SpeedTrack's lawyer was naturally offended at such accusations. He argued that theoretical claims are allowed in the early stage of a lawsuit, and that it was the retailers' fault for taking too long to respond to requests for information.

It's fair to say the judge is not exactly excited about SpeedTrack, but nevertheless on Friday ruled SpeedTrack should be allowed to tweak its lawsuit to adjust its allegations of patent infringement. SpeedTrack now has 120 days to "amend its infringement contentions," although during that time, the retailers do not have to respond to discovery requests.

In other words, SpeedTrack can update its claims, in light of the web bazaars' objections, but it can't go on a discovery hunt until it has revised its allegations.

The patent in question – US no. 5,544,360 – is summarized as: "Method for accessing computer files and data, using linked categories assigned to each data file record on entry of the data file record." Here's the abstract:

A computer filing system for accessing files and data according to user-designated criteria. The system allows the user to define a virtually unlimited number of hybrid folders by describing, using terms of their own selection, the file contents of those files which are to belong to particular hybrid folders.

Such hybrid folders can be implemented on top of, and used in addition to, the normal hierarchical structured directory, or they may replace such normal structures entirely. The inventive computer file control system could therefore be used as the basis of a new computer operating system.

In the process of search and retrieval, the invention ensures in two ways that the user defines a filter which will always find at least one file. The user is not required to type the key words to search but instead chooses the words from pick lists, making mistyping impossible. As the user builds the search filter definition, categories which would find no data are automatically excluded as pick list possibilities.

Money explosion photo via Shutterstock

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Unlike most patent troll cases, SpeedTrack's cofounder did in fact develop and patent the method, ie: the company didn't buy it from the inventor with an eye to suing others for infringement.

And – according to SpeedTrack – some organizations have paid to use its technology, including police departments that use its technology to sort through their criminal records.

SpeedTrack's system provides related and relevant search responses to specific keywords if those keywords turn up no results. It's something that pretty much every decent online retailer has on their website, meaning that if SpeedTrack does succeed in persuading a court that their patent has been infringed by Amazon, Macy's, Best Buy, and almost two dozen other huge online retailers, then it would enjoy a massive payday.

But by apparently creating fictional conversations about what might have happened and, in the words of the judge, "front-loading a whole lot of other discovery" in its case, SpeedTrack looks a lot like the that slowly dying species known as patentus trollus. ®

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