Samsung and RIM: Sued For Emoticons



Here is a story that is a little bit :-P but really mostly :-(

It starts in 2005, when Jonathan Nelson applied for a patent for an "emoticon input method and apparatus." The apparatus in question would allow a user of a "communication device" (i.e., a cell phone) to pick an emoticon via a specific button -- or via, in the language of the patent, "the provision of emoticon input logic."

"It is known that for many users, their email and instant messaging communications ... often involve the use of emoticons, such as the 'smiling face' or the 'sad face,'" the application notes. "However, few email of instant messaging applications offer any assistance to a user to enter and use emoticons in their communications." Furthermore,

regardless whether the character sequence is conventional or unconventional, a user typically has to enter the emoticon forming characters one at a time. This disadvantage is amplified in situations where the user is conducting the textual or non-verbal communication using a communication device having limited input facilities, such as wireless mobile phones. Accordingly, facilities that are more user friendly in assisting a user to employ emoticons on their communications, especially on communication devices with limited input facilities, such as wireless mobile phones, are desired.

Here's the application's rendering:

Screen Shot 2012-03-19 at 5.16.11 PM.png

In 2007, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent for Nelson's emoti-button, assigning it to the mobile accessories firm Wildseed Ltd. The patent, after that, proceeded to jump among Wildseed (which was acquired by AOL in 2005), the business-to-business software company Varia Mobil, and, finally, the firm Varia Holdings LLC. A firm that, Techdirt's Mike Masnick notes, "appears to just be a trolling operation (of course)."

Fast forward to 2012. On March 15, Varia Holdings filed a complaint against Samsung and Research in Motion, claiming that devices like the BlackBerry, the Galaxy Nexus, and the Droid infringe on the emoti-button patent with their button-based interfaces.

In a week following Yahoo's much-decried patent-based action against Facebook -- not to mention, paidContent notes, with a general "uptick of patent trolls" whose work is backed by venture capital -- the emoticon suit seems especially of-the-moment. And, well, :(-inducing. The legal costs associated with patent trolling, one study found, ended up costing the economy $500 billion -- yep, that's half a trillion dollars -- between 1990 and 2010. And many argue that the relative impunity that patent trolls operate within, more broadly, stifles innovation. So while the Varia emoti-suit is silly, it's also symbolic. "It's fairly stunning that anyone considered this a valid patent at any point," Masnick writes of the "emoticon input" method. "That it's now being used as the basis for a lawsuit should (once again) raise significant questions about the USPTO's approval process for patents."

Image: Shutterstock/traffico.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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