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With interest in traditional banner ads as lukewarm as ever, companies are constantly seeking new ways to catch and hold eyeballs. That makes Juno’s patent on offline banner ads — and a federal lawsuit against alleged infringers — all the more significant. Juno’s patent, as well as several others like it, could rekindle the debate over the value of laws that allow people to own cyberspace business methods. Last week in Delaware federal court, ISP giant Juno sued NetZero and Qualcomm, which are both competitors, on the basis of a patent that Juno recently obtained. The patent protects Juno’s technology that allows ads to be downloaded, then cached on a user’s hard drive and later displayed when the user reads or writes e-mail offline. “The technology we’ve invented benefits us greatly and could benefit others — but we’re not going to let other companies use it for free,” says Richard Buchband, Juno’s general counsel. Qualcomm, headquartered in San Diego, Calif., publishes the Eudora e-mail software that NetZero distributes. Juno claims Eudora has an offline ad feature that unlawfully uses Juno’s technology and is seeking unspecified monetary damages and an injunction prohibiting further infringement of its patent. A Qualcomm spokeswoman said that the company hasn’t yet been served with the lawsuit and thus cannot respond. NetZero didn’t return a call seeking comment. Gregory Aharonian, a San Francisco intellectual property expert who is often highly critical of business method patents, says this one seems sound. “The patent cites a good amount of patent and non-patent prior art, so this could be a tricky one to bust,” he writes at his Bustpatents.com site. Juno hasn’t been the only company active on the patent front of late. Online computer-products retailer Egghead.com has patented a way of informing customers of their order status by e-mail. No lawsuits yet, but the company says “we will consider our options with respect to potential infringers.” Meanwhile, CNET says its new patented cookie technology allows companies to follow users from site to site. At press time, it was unclear how CNET intends to employ it. James Pooley, a Silicon Valley patent authority at Palo Alto, Calif.’s Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich, has watched the business-method patent scene develop from a sleepy backwater to an active practice, sparked by Amazon.com’s legal blast last year at Barnesandnoble.com over one-click purchasing technology. That case, in which Amazon.com won a preliminary injunction that forced its competitor to add another mouse click to Bn.com’s Express Lane ordering routine, could be argued before a federal appeals court in August. Pooley says e-commerce companies now call him and his colleagues regularly wondering whether patent lawsuits are isolated events. “There’s anxiety, because no one knows the application and scope of what’s currently in the pipeline,” says Pooley, whose firm represents Qualcomm in matters unrelated to the Juno suit. “And no one knows what new holders will do with their patents.” Most companies want to work out licensing deals, a practice that can reward innovation and promote orderly commerce. Others want more. “For some it’s tempting to tie up your competitor in litigation and try to lure away customers by causing fear, uncertainty and doubt,” Pooley says. And some businesses take a third path — they publish their innovations instead of patenting them outright. Copyright � 2000 The Industry Standard

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