Alerting the public about a fire, hurricane or traffic accident on Twitter is an unlawful tweet.
So claims TechRadium, a company in Sugar Land, Texas, that is suing Twitter for alleged patent infringement for allowing municipalities, companies, and government agencies to use its site as an emergency notification system.
TechRadium, an emergency alert provider, argues that it has patents covering the process for simultaneously notifying large numbers of people about emergencies through multiple communication gateways, such as cell phones, pagers and e-mail. The company develops and sells the technology to schools, businesses, governments and the U.S. military but not Twitter.
TechRadium claims that Twitter’s design falls within the patented technology, so when organizations tweet about road closures, fires or bad weather, the company claims its patent rights are being violated.
“It appears that Twitter’s core functionality is squarely within the technology described by TechRadium’s patents,” said Shawn Staples of the Mostyn Law firm, a litigation boutique in Houston, who is representing TechRadium. “We have some obligation to try and protect our intellectual property.”
According to Staples, TechRadium filed the lawsuit after discovering a few months ago that many companies and governments were starting to use Twitter as their emergency notification systems.
For example, Chevron and Shell use Twitter to post hurricane updates. The Los Angeles Fire Department used Twitter to post alerts about major fires and road closures. The Washington Department of Transportation uses Twitter for traffic alerts and route changes for ferry vessels.
Twitter’s attorney, Ted G. Wang of Fenwick & West, declined comment. Officials with Twitter were not available for comment.
The lawsuit, meanwhile, is triggering interest among intellectual property attorneys.
George Borkowski, chairman of the intellectual property practice at Venable in Los Angeles, said Twitter is likely to challenge the validity of the patents, claiming that the technology is too generic or too obvious to warrant a patent.
“One argument is that the technology was already out there, so there’s nothing truly novel about the patent,” Borkowski said. “Another argument will be even if this specific technology that’s taught in the patents wasn’t already out there, it would have been obvious to someone who was in this field.”
Borkowski noted that the technology and processes for sending a message simultaneously to large groups of people has long been in existence.
“You can do that on your Outlook email … You can do that on any voice mail system,” Borkowski said.
Still, he added, “When the patent office issues a patent, there’s a presumption that it’s legitimate. When you look at the claims of the (TechRadium) patent, and in general terms, they do seem to cover what Twitter does.”
E. Leonard Rubin, an intellectual property attorney at Chicago’s Querrey & Harrow, said there’s a puzzling question lingering in the Twitter patent claim.
Why is the use of Twitter’s function in a normal way not infringing on TechRadium’s patents, but it is called infringing when it’s used as an emergency notification system?
“The TechRadium patents are not labeled as for “emergency notification systems,” Rubin said. “An issued patent may have a presumption of validity, but all that means is that an accused infringer has to show why it is invalid, and that’s happened many times.”
Will Twitter prevail?
“It’s not an automatic guarantee of a win in court. Patent infringement lawsuits are always complex, though, and this one could take years to wind its way through the courts,” Rubin said.
For Staples, the case is a classic David and Goliath tale.
“This isn’t a case where Twitter is just going to say, ‘Here’s a nuisance. We’ll pay money and license it.’ ” Staples said. “ They’re going to likely just try to crush the little guy.”
Staples, meanwhile, noted that this is the second time this year that TechRadium has fought to preserve its patent rights involving the emergency notification system.
In June, the company settled a similar lawsuit with Blackboard Inc., the online service that lets parents check on their kids homework and school progress. Blackboard Inc. also had a system in place enabling school officials to alert parents about school closings or other emergency information.
Both parties sued each other regarding their respective notification technologies, but reached an agreement on June 17 that calls for the companies to cross-license their patents and let both use the technology. Additional terms of the agreement were confidential.
The Twitter lawsuit seeks, among other things, unspecified damages, recovery of legal fees and a permanent injunction against Twitter.
The patents Twitter is allegedly infringing are a patent granted in October 2006 for a “digital notification and response system”; a patent granted in February 2009 for a “method for providing digital notification”; and a patent granted in April 2009 for a “method for providing digital notification and receiving responses.”
“TechRadium has spent a lot of time and money developing our technology and we will potentially lose any reward for our efforts if Twitter continues its unlicensed use of our technology,” said Louis Vetrano Jr., TechRadium’s general counsel.