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Apple, Google, and Others Hit With Patent Lawsuit Over Spam Email Identification

Apple and nearly three dozen other companies were slapped with a patent infringement lawsuit yesterday over technology used to differentiate between legitimate and spam email messages. The suit, being pursued by apparent patent troll InNova Patent Licensing, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas in Marshall, which is considered to one of the most friendly courts for those pursuing patent infringement cases.

The federal lawsuit focuses on a revolutionary InNova patent, U.S. Patent No. 6,018,761, that covers technology used to differentiate between spam email messages and those that users actually want to receive. The InNova patent was awarded to inventor and mathematician Robert Uomini nearly 15 years ago when Internet email was still in its formative stages. Mr. Uomini is the founder of InNova.

Patent-infringement attorney Christopher Banys, lead counsel for InNova, says the company's patent is one of the building blocks for all email communications. InNova's complaint alleges that the defendant companies have used InNova's invention without permission for years.

"Email as we know it would essentially stop working if it weren't for InNova's invention," says Mr. Banys, who leads The Lanier Law Firm's national intellectual property practice. "More than 80 percent of email is spam, which is why companies use InNova's invention rather than forcing employees to wade through billions of useless emails. Unfortunately, the defendants appear to be profiting from this invention without any consideration for InNova's legal patent rights."

Among the other tech companies included in the lawsuit are Google, Dell, HP, IBM, and Yahoo, as well as non-tech companies such as JC Penney, Dr. Pepper Snapple, and Bank of America.

It is unclear from the press release exactly how Apple and the other defendants are claimed to have infringed the patent. The patent, however, describes methods for storing "context information" associated with an email address, such as the person's real name and business affiliation, in a database. Recipients' email applications could then automatically access the database when a message arrives, providing identification information on the sender. The database would render it unnecessary for senders to specify certain email header fields such as adding a real name to the "From" field or adding a signature to each email message, while also serving as an aid to separate emails sent by known or otherwise legitimate senders from those sent by spammers.