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Google and Others Sued For Automating Email 273

Dotnaught sends us to InformationWeek for news of the latest lawsuit by Polaris IP, which holds a patent on the idea of responding automatically to emails. The company has no products. It brought suit in the Eastern District in Texas, as many patent trolls do — though the article informs us that that venue has been getting less friendly of late to IP interests, and has actually invalidated some patents. The six companies being sued are AOL, Amazon, Borders, Google, IAC, and Yahoo. All previous suits based on this patent have been settled.
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Google and Others Sued For Automating Email

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  • by ebunga ( 95613 ) on Tuesday August 28, 2007 @09:15PM (#20392853) Homepage
    Subject says it all. Procmail v1.0 was released in 1991. That's a little earlier than 1997...
  • by GuyverDH ( 232921 ) on Tuesday August 28, 2007 @09:19PM (#20392891)
    message received.
    sendmail looks up in it's address base and either a) forwards to appropriate mailbox or b) replies with undeliverable.
    further details within the rule base may determine whether additional copies need to be forwarded to other mailboxes, or further responses are necessary.
    integration with things like spamlists, virus scanners all add to the *automated* handling of e-mail based on rules.

    just because they are adding additional automation to the last leg in the e-mail journey doesn't mean that the mail was already processed, scanned, had rules applied and copies made/forwarded by the server before the client ever saw the message.

    Obvious patent - apply server rule processing to email client.... BFD.
  • Others precede it (Score:5, Informative)

    by Rinisari ( 521266 ) on Tuesday August 28, 2007 @09:26PM (#20392969) Homepage Journal
    IIRC, Majordomo and GNU Mailman predate this patent by at least six years. In fact, the current mailman-users mailing list's earliest archive is May 1998, so work would probably had to begun far before that. A little research proved that LISTSERV predates all of them, actually. From Wikipedia:

    LISTSERV is the first electronic mailing list software application, originally developed in 1984 by Ira Fuchs, Daniel Oberst, and Ricky Hernandez for the BITNET computer network.
  • Majordomo (Score:5, Informative)

    by Y2K is bogus ( 7647 ) on Tuesday August 28, 2007 @09:26PM (#20392971)
    Majordomo did just what the patent says. It parsed a message, determined whether it could be automatically responded to (as in subscribe, unsubscribe, list members, help, list charter, etc) or needed to be forwarded to the list owner. Majordomo did much of the list management entirely automatically, hence it's name. They describe something entirely comprised of Majordomo's functionality. Our company was using Majordomo to manage email lists in 1995, well before this patent was filed.

    Clearly their intent is an "Ask Jeeves" type service that is email based. You send a support query to an email address and the server tries to guess at what canned FAQ is most appropriate and sends it.

  • by jqpublic ( 200129 ) on Tuesday August 28, 2007 @09:31PM (#20393005) Homepage
    man vacation


                  vacation is Copyright (c) 1983 by Eric P. Allman, University of Berkeley, California, and Copyright (c) 1993 by Harald Milz
                  ( Tiny patches 1998 by Mark Seuffert (
                  Now maintained by Sean Rima (

  • Re:ridiculous (Score:2, Informative)

    by NemoinSpace ( 1118137 ) on Tuesday August 28, 2007 @09:41PM (#20393105) Journal
    yeah it's probably explained better in the filing O1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fs rchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=6411947.PN.&OS=PN/64119 47&RS=PN/6411947 [] Everyone is entitled to an opinion, some are based on fact, others are based on warm fuzzy feelings. Congrats on first post though.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 28, 2007 @10:00PM (#20393263)
    Although my college was already on a T1 line when I went there in 1991, others had talked about the time before when the school only had UUCP connectivity ( which would be around 1988-1989 ). A user could send a message to the remote system ( a bigger university which had a dedicated line ), which would automatically fetch the file with ftp, then send it back to the user on the next UUCP exchange. The driving force for installing the T1 was because students using UUCP to request files from remote systems were getting to the point where the modem was staying dialed in for most of the day.
  • Re:WHO? (Score:5, Informative)

    by AJWM ( 19027 ) on Tuesday August 28, 2007 @10:45PM (#20393587) Homepage
    Who the hell would settle something like this with such a well established history of "prior art"?

    Someone who, when they appeared ready to fight it, was offered a settlement and patent license for a very nominal sum. Easier and cheaper to pay even a few hundred bucks and walk away than pay for lawyers and months of a lawsuit.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 28, 2007 @11:04PM (#20393749)
    >> it also covers emailing the sender a canned response (from a repository) based on the content of the message

    This sounds an *awful* lot like what pretty much *every* mailing list manager has been doing for at least 15 years. This includes Procmail's SmartList, MajorDomo, and the
    venerable BITNET LISTSERV which I was using in the mid-to-late 1980's. Anything
    hooked up to -owner filtered the mail for administrivia and often sent mail
    back in response to an admin request.
  • Re:Others precede it (Score:5, Informative)

    by TekPolitik ( 147802 ) on Tuesday August 28, 2007 @11:18PM (#20393837) Journal

    99% of the people who post a reply have never filed a patent in their life. Yes, they're idiots.

    The problem with idiots is that they are usually too stupid to recognise their own idiocy.

    In my experience it is idiots that file patents believing their trivial, worthless idea actually merits one. Smart people are more likely to realise that what while they may have been pretty clever coming up with a particular thing, that doesn't mean it's so innovative it merits the protection of a statutory monopoly, and are less likely (for a variety of social reasons that I am sure are beyond you) to pretend otherwise in order to cheat the system.

    Based on the abstract, LISTSERV would seem to be prior art. As I recall LISTSERV could indeed respond to commands in the content of messages, forwarding messages lacking valid commands to the list operator. Even if LISTSERV and Majordomo do not implement all of the claims, they would certainly provide part of the evidentiary basis for invalidating the patent on grounds of obviousness.

    Going through the claim, many of the claims are obviously just plain silly. Take as an example claim 5 which is for "The method of claim 4, wherein the sub-categories include product service subject matter and product sales subject matter". That adds nothing even remotely capable of being described as an inventive step to claim 4 and so it necessarily stands or falls together with claim 4.

    Even if there is some implementation that is much more involved and complex than the descriptions in the patent, the patent has to be interpreted standing alone, not in the context of an external implementation, and in that context the stuff that's there involves no innovation, let alone invention, and lacks anything even slightly complex.

    I am not going to go through all 66 claims since the first 20 or so are so silly as to make it not worth my time examining all of them in detail. Suffice it to say, Amy Rice and Julie Hsu (the "inventors") are indeed idiots if they think there's anything meriting a patent here.

  • by Skapare ( 16644 ) on Tuesday August 28, 2007 @11:40PM (#20393987) Homepage

    I can't recall the exact year, but it was around 1984 (scary, eh?). The DECsystem-2060 system running TOPS-20 at The Ohio State University Computer Science Department was connected via a network I believe was CSNET. While using that system I learned of a facility to obtain RFC documents that described things like the format of email headers ... by sending email to a specific email address. It would them email the document back. I received over 20 some RFCs that way. They came back within a couple minutes, so I doubt they had someone just sitting there answering it. I suspect this was an early IETF or ARPA facility. Maybe they have some documentation that still remains about this. Maybe it's in an RFC itself. I'll have to Google for more of this.

  • by TuballoyThunder ( 534063 ) on Tuesday August 28, 2007 @11:40PM (#20393989)
    let us not forget the email-to-ftp gateways that BITNET [] used to have. Another example is the AutoDRM [] protocol used for seismic data, which dates to 1991.
  • by SL Baur ( 19540 ) <> on Wednesday August 29, 2007 @02:22AM (#20395007) Homepage Journal

    I'm sure prior art does exist, though -- when usenet was king, moderated newsgroups did something similar.
    No, they didn't. This patent is describing an intelligent SPAM filter.

    I'm sure procmail can do that, but unless they procmail included an example of doing just that, it's not prior art.
    Time to read the patent much closer, they list procmail as prior art.

    They have patented something like SPAM filters with a lot of extensions.

    I can see why google would settle than fight it. :(

    We have been kdawson'ed again. This looks to me like a valid patent with only a sensational but meaningless title.
  • by BuGless ( 31232 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2007 @05:12AM (#20395721) Homepage

    Checking my svk tree (converted from cvs), I notice that in 1994 the "man procmailex" manpage included with the procmail distro already contains a dynamic E-mail-me-the-file-I-ask-for example.

    Which isn't what this patent is about. This patent is about running a message through a text classification algorithm to determine what kind of message it's likely to be, pulling a canned response from a database if it matches a known category and sending that response, otherwise flagging it for human attention. Did the example do all of these things? If not, it isn't useful prior art.
    Checking the same svk tree, I see that SmartList was included in the procmail distro prior to 1994, and SmartList *did* (and does) do all of those things. It contains a fairly elaborate weighted parsing system which tries to respond with canned replies in response to natural language requests, albeit in the domain of mailinglist and file transfer operations.

Nothing is finished until the paperwork is done.