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iOS developers see patent troll threat over in-app purchases

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.

by MacNN Staff



  1. aardman

    Joined: Dec 1969


    comment title

    Another entry on the list entitled "Why software patents should disappear".

  1. djbeta

    Joined: Dec 1969



    I am not suggesting i know the facts... but..

    Anyone that would willingly try to profit off of another person or company in such a fashion should get the same courtesy we gave to Osama.

    Please pass that on and do not stand for people to treat one another with such greed and suggest they go out and produce something of their own rather than be a leech.

  1. Peter Bonte

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Apple and Google

    should be on to this and protect there developers, this is so bad.

    A beer label had the same problem here in Belgium, there Bush-beer was way older than the US version but the US-Bush label would sue them so they stopped producing it because it would be to expensive to defend. The system s**ks, not only with software.

  1. bigmacfan001

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Patent Trolls

    Smells like Uniloc to me... small developers can't withstand the hundreds of thousands of dollars it requires to defend in a patent lawsuit. The big players definitely need to step up to the plate and use their legal resources and money to protect the smaller developers that are making their platforms successful...

  1. eclux

    Joined: Dec 1969


    watch this case

    This is disturbing in many ways. I hope you can keep us up to date on the facts of the case, and not just offer click-inflating sensational headline dreck that seems more and more common on this site. This could actually be important to many people.

  1. TheSnarkmeister

    Joined: Dec 1969


    This is BS...

    America's entire IP system is broke. The patent and copyright system needs to be tossed out whole and reestablished exactly as it was at the the time of the Constitution. Intellectual property protections were never intended to be a way to establish a new class of landed gentry, of haves and have nots. Most certainly is was not meant to be a means for discouraging innovations rather than the opposite.

  1. UmarOMC

    Joined: Dec 1969


    If they win...

    We're all in deep shizznit.

  1. Inkling

    Joined: Dec 1969


    If only Apple....

    Apple lawyers have been involved in a number of lawsuits of dubious value. It'd be great to see them pre-emp this quite useful dispute, drawing this troll's fire by suing it themselves. And it'd be even better if Apple could win a settlement that'd destroy this troll, releasing all its pseudo-patents into the wild. Deal trolls are a good thing and nothing kills a troll faster than legal sunshine.

    It'd also make sense to file now. The longer Apple waits, the more developers will have second thoughts about in-app purchases and the more money this troll will have stashed away for a fight.

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