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Patent Trolls Go Shopping? Macy's Sued for Search Engine

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on July 03, 2013 7:01 AM

The department store giant Macy’s is being accused of patent infringement over employing search technology that allows customers on their websites to “search-on-the-fly.”

The suit was brought by New York-based Smart Search Concepts LLC, the owner of two search-engine patents who has also sued several other department stores (including Kohl’s and Nieman Marcus) for infringing on their patents, reports Cincinnati’s WCPO.

Is Smart Search Concepts a patent troll and if so, how will Macy’s avoid paying the troll toll?

If The Pointy Little Hat Fits ...

Patent trolls are companies who don't produce anything, they simply buy up patent rights from smaller companies and make their bottom line by suing larger corporations for patent infringement. Patent trolls may own intellectual property rights in software or even porn, and their "shotgun" approach to litigating their patent claims typically results in multiple small-to-medium settlements that add up to a big payday.

Smart Search Concepts may or may not be a patent troll -- it can be hard to tell the difference. Some trolls are touted as "research and development" groups, and even honest inventors are often willing to give up patent rights for financial help. Time and discovery may help show the troll.

White House Not a Troll Fan

In early June 2013, the White House Task Force on High-Tech Patent Issues (WHTFHTPI is so catchy) issued a press release vowing to crack down on those patent trolls abusing the federal court systems.

Among the proposed legislation, the Task Force supports:

  • Protecting consumers from off-shelf patent infringement claims
  • Awarding attorney's fees to punish abusive filers
  • Forcing demand letters to be publically posted to avoid coercion

Other proposed bills such as the superheroic-sounding SHIELD Act seek to shift the cost of litigation to the losing party, encouraging smaller companies to fight back against patent trolls.

Luckily for Smart Search Concepts, none of these proposed legislations are yet in force.

Search Patents Too Abstract?

With Macy's now facing a protracted battle with Smart Search Concepts over a very rudimentary concept of Internet searches, where will the patent trolling end?

The federal courts had a shot at narrowing the scope of some of these very general concept patent cases in late June, but chose to side with the patent holders instead against companies like Hulu and YouTube.

While that might seem Robin Hood-ish when the troll victims are large companies, department stores like Macy's may end up passing on the cost of being sued to their consumers.

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