"Sue them all and let the judge sort them out" may be the watch phrase for the technology industry these days as protecting innovation becomes as much an offensive game as a defensive one.
This week, tiny MasterObjects, which makes search technology, sued software giant Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) for patent infringement.
It's only the latest lawsuit filed against an American company by the Netherlands and San Francisco-based software developer. The company has already filed suit against Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) over its U.S. patent for "instant" search technology.
Specifically, MasterObjects claims to hold a patent for technology that provides progressive search information as the user types in his or her query, a feature that Google, Amazon, and Microsoft all provide in their search engines.
The patent, entitled, "System and method for utilizing asynchronous client server communication objects," is registered as U.S. patent number 7,752,326. MasterObjects filed its suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division, earlier this week.
"Using asynchronous communications technology, as the user typed more characters, the results in the drop-down box would change dynamically, becoming increasingly relevant as the string of characters lengthened," the suit states, describing the technology.
The company claims that it originally created the technology in 2000, filed for U.S. patents in 2001 and 2004, and that it was granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in July 2010.
TechCrunch, which has been closely following MasterObjects' suits, surfaced the latest turn in the case -- the filing against Microsoft -- Thursday.
MasterObjects' main product is called QuestFields, "an out-of-the-box information access solution" that it licenses to customers for use on their sites.
"Embodiments include integration within an Internet, web or other online environment, including applications for use in interactive database searching, data entry, online searching, online purchasing, music purchasing, people-searching, and other applications. In some implementations the system may be used to provide dynamically focused suggestions, auto-completed text, or other input-related assistance, to the user," MasterObjects' filing states.
The filing claims that MasterObjects first notified Microsoft it was using the company's patent in 2008, although it says the infringement dates to 2006. In the suit, the company called out Microsoft Bing, but also earlier search products, including Live Search, Windows Live Search, and MSN Search, as infringing on its patent.
MasterObjects has asked for preliminary and permanent injunctions against the use of its patent, as well as damages and interest, and requests a jury trial.
Microsoft, and many other technology industry giants, have been increasingly involved in patent litigation as smaller companies fight to protect what they consider their intellectual assets from being lifted by bigger players. Of course, the bigger players often disagree about such accusations and fight tooth and nail to win outright or to have challengers' patents declared invalid.
One longtime industry observer believes it's far too early to draw many conclusions regarding MasterObjects' suit and its merits, or its likely outcome.
"I have to believe that Microsoft, Google and Amazon will fight this as hard as they can," Tim Bajarin, president and principal analyst at Creative Strategies, told InternetNews.com.
For instance, Microsoft has even taken one infringement case that it has lost in the lower courts -- a suit filed and won by tiny Toronto software company i4i -- all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"In the end, the only winners will be the lawyers," Bajarin added.
A Microsoft spokesperson said that the company declined to comment on the lawsuit.
A spokesperson for MasterObjects was not available to comment in time for publication.