updated 09:55 am EDT, Fri May 13, 2011
iOS devs threatened with in-app patent lawsuits
(Update: company name, patent identified) iPhone and iPad app developers faced an alarming trend Friday as at least two were sued by an unnamed patent firm. The company claims that PCalc Lite developer James Thomson and Shanghai Mahjong creator Patrick McCarron were allegedly violating patents simply by using in-app purchases. The requests weren't detailed but would presumably insist that McCarron and Thomson either pay royalties or face an expensive lawsuit.
The suing company appeared to be a pure patent troll as it wasn't known so far to have targeted Apple, whose in-app purchasing system is the actual subject of the dispute. If they don't have strong cases, firms of the sort often target smaller companies since they often don't have the money to mount a proper defense and have the case tossed out. Thomson noted that it would be virtually impossible for him to fight back, something the threatening company was likely counting on.
"A decent IP lawyer will burn all the profits from PCalc in-app purchasing in one day," he said.
Thomson had already decided to contact Apple's legal team to see if it could provide any recourse. Most details would remain quiet until then as he didn't want to "talk too much on the record" until he knew what support he would have.
Apple hadn't yet publicly responded to the lawsuits.
Threats of lawsuits, if made real, could create a dangerous precedent both for the entire iOS ecosystem as well as other platforms. RIM brought in-app sales to BlackBerrys this February and was quickly followed by Google's Android in-app purchases in March. The threats aren't platform specific and could see both mobile OS makers and many app developers forced to pay royalties to a company that might not be competing in the market at all.
Update: a further check has revealed that the company suing developers is Lodsys, a patent holding company that like most patent trolls has no income but royalties and lawsuits. Its patent, filed in 2003, is generic and covers "gathering information from units of a commodity across a network."
The claim would be difficult to gauge without details but may face prior art challenges. PalmOS and Microsoft's PocketPC both existed at the time and might have instances of prior art through their early app platforms.
Also, at least a third developer, Computer LogiX, has been accused of infringing on the patent for including a button in its app Mix & Mash Lite to upgrade to the full version. The app isn't using iTunes' in-app purchases and is just pushing users to the iTunes Store.