Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

The Rise of Attention Management on the Web: Can Paul Allen's Patents Be Enforced?

Published onNov 08, 2010
The Rise of Attention Management on the Web: Can Paul Allen's Patents Be Enforced?

In the late 1990s, the spread of information via the World Wide Web was similar to the Age of Enlightenment for western culture.  As information became increasingly available on the Web, more users looked to it for their needs.  Adoption of the Internet, though gradual at first, has become a daily necessity for people in the developed world. 

Paul Allen could be considered part of the School of Athens of the Internet age .  Allen, most famous for his involvement in Microsoft, created and owns many of the patents for common fixtures of the Internet experience.  Interval Licensing LLC, Allen’s Silicon Valley laboratory, developed the technology behind many attention management tools in common usage, such as pop-up stock quotes, related reading suggestions, and videos in the screen’s peripheral.  With the advent of social media and interactive news websites, managing attention is a lucrative web business.  Web users have become accustomed to interacting with attention management programs, so much so that the absence of such programs might drastically change the web and people’s interaction with it.

On August 27, 2010, Interval Licensing filed suit in United States District Court for the District of Western Washington alleging that eleven of the largest internet companies have violated patents relating to these attention management devices.  Included in the suit are defendants AOL, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, Yahoo, and YouTube.  Interval asserts violation of four separate patents: one for a news aggregator, two related to an attention management tool providing related information in a peripheral screen location, and a tool for alerting the user to items of current interest.  Notably, the diagrams of the patents, which were submitted in 1995 and 2000, look very much like websites today and nothing like the websites of the late 1990s.  (See WSJ Digits Blog for detailed pictures.) Interval’s suit demands an injunction on the named parties and damages.


Submitted diagram of Interval’s news aggregator. Source: US Patent No. 6,263,507.

If the court grants Interval an injunction the nature of the web would change completely, and internet-based companies would be forced to reevaluate their entire business models.  For instance, navigation from one news article to related news articles would be more difficult if the user could not access the articles from the same page and instead had to run a separate search.  Similar situations would occur in shopping and social networking contexts across the entirety of the web.  With a change in model for Internet companies, Internet users would lose much of the functionality they enjoy; hence, a lot is at stake for web companies and web users.

 Interval probably anticipates a denial of the injunction due to the major implications for web users.  Ordinarily, a denial of an injunction may increase the likelihood for court-awarded monetary damages.  But that begs the question in this instance:  why does Paul Allen need more money?  It’s a trick question; he doesn’t.  So the answer may be that Interval’s suit is an effort to disadvantage Internet firms that compete with companies in which Allen has a strong interest, like Microsoft.  It will be interesting to see if an anti-competitive motivation comes out in the proceedings.

The dispositive question will be “Can Interval win an injunction?”  It’s not clear yet.  However, the defendants will probably advance a number of arguments, the best of which is that Interval has slept on its rights.  Timeliness is a common defense among defendants in patent suits.  If a technology has been widely adopted for a number of years but the patent holder has not sought enforcement, the patent may become unenforceable.  The patents in this case were issued between 1996 and 2000. In the ten years since, Internet usage has exploded, and many of Interval’s technologies have become ubiquitous.  It would appear that if Interval truly sought to limit the usage of its patented technology, it would have brought suit before now.

Regardless of the outcome, the suit is likely to raise age-old arguments about business method patents and the impact of patent enforcement on innovation.


*Joseph Norman is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law.  He holds a Bachelor of Science in Management from North Carolina State University and an MBA in Finance from the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte.  Prior to enrolling in law school, Mr. Norman worked for Wells Fargo Wealth Management in Equity Research.  Upon graduation in May 2012, Mr Norman intends to practice corporate law.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?