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The Mercury News is reporting that on January 3rd, Lycos filed a patent lawsuit against TiVo (TIVO), Netflix (NFLX) and Blockbuster (BBI) over their use of recommendation technology. The article doesn’t give the exact patents that are alleged to be violated, but a quick scan of Lycos’ patent filings shows patents 6775664 and 6308175 as the most likely candidates.

Patent 6775664 was originally filed on Oct. 22, 2001 and describes a search method that uses a user feedback system to provide “collaborative feedback data for integration with content profile data in the operation of the collaborative/content-based filter.”

Patent 6308175 was filed on Nov. 19th, 1998 and according to the patent, it covers technology whose “filter system compares received informons to the individual user’s query profile data, combined with collaborative data, and ranks, in order of value, informons found to be relevant. The system maintains the ranked informons in a stored list from which the individual user can select any listed informon for consideration.”

lycos
Whether Lycos is trolling for patent royalties or whether they feel that they have a legitimate claim on their hands is really irrelevant. The last thing that Blockbuster, Netflix or TiVo needed was another patent lawsuit. TiVo is currently embroiled in a high profile lawsuit against Echostar (DISH) and faces a countersuit that has yet to go to trial. Meanwhile, Netflix has sued Blockbuster over violations to their patent on online renting, and in turn, Blockbuster has countersued claiming anti-trust violations on Netflix’s part. Interestingly enough, Blockbuster recently filed two patent applications themselves, that seem to cover their business model for the total access program.

Why Lycos waited this long before trying to enforce their patent remains unclear, but they are seeking an injunction to prevent all three companies from being able to offer suggestions to their customers.

Suggestive search is a key technology for all three companies. In the case of TiVo, it’s a unique feature that other DVR providers can’t offer, but in the case of Blockbuster and Netflix, their use of suggestions can save them millions of dollars by recommending movies that utilize low cost archive content over the top new releases. If Lycos is able to convince a jury that they own the rights to this technology, it will have a chilling effect on the technology industry. Many web 2.0 companies use suggestive search to improve their user’s experience and if Lycos establishes patent protection for this popular consumer feature, it will make it even more difficult for consumers to be able to find personalized content that is of interest to them.

Whether Blockbuster, Netflix and TiVo choose to fight this battle on behalf of the rest of the tech industry, or whether they roll over and settle the lawsuit, remains to be seen, but at such a crucial stage in their history, dealing with another patent lawsuit will be a costly distraction in terms of both time and money.

Disclosure: I own stock in Netflix and TiVo

TIVO vs. NFLX vs. BBI 1-yr chart

tivo bbi chart

Source: Lycos Sues TiVo, Netflix & Blockbuster Over Search Technology