Emoticons Enter Patent Wars
March 21, 2012

Emoticons Enter Patent Wars

Jedidiah Becker for RedOrbit.com

In the most recent installment in the tech industry´s increasingly absurd patent wars, Varia Holdings LLC is suing mobile device makers Samsung Electronics and Research in Motion (RIM) for allegedly infringing its patent on a technology used to insert emoticons into text messages.

In case you´ve been living in rural Indochina for the last decade, emoticons are those obnoxious (yet strangely convenient) little faces that we´re all guilty of using. Or in the word´s of the official filing, they are “pictorial representations of an expression or a person´s mood.”

It all started with the infamous smiley and just went downhill from there. “¦ Thanks Forrest.

Varia now claims that the two smartphone manufacturers have made unlicensed use of their U.S. patent titled “Emoticon Input Method and Apparatus” or, for the numerically inclined, Patent No. 7167731.

The alleged patent infringement does not pertain to emoticons themselves but rather to the technology used to enter them into mobile devices.  According to Varia, numerous smartphones from both Samsung and RIM utilize a set of hardware keys that allow users to pull up an emoticon menu — an utterly banal bit of technology that it claims to have designed and patented.

The emoticon menu offers a user-friendly alternative to individually entering in the constituent symbols and punctuation marks that traditionally make up emoticons.

The original patent rights have changed hands several times since the technology was invented in 2005. Originally filed by mobile software developer Wildseed Ltd., the rights were transferred to AOL when it bought out the small company in late 2005, although the patent was not actually officially granted until 2007.

Varia Holdings is likely related to Varia Mobile, a spin-off of AOL Inc. — which would explain how it came to vicariously control the rights to the patent.

In the official filing, Varia alleges that Samsung was aware of the existence of the patent long before it filed suit, pointing to the Seoul-based company´s stockpile of tens of thousands of patents, 99 of which are filed under the same category and subcategory as the patent in question.

According to the filing, “Samsung actively monitors PTO filings on technologies related to Samsung products and knew of (Varia´s) patent at or around the date of its issuance.”

What´s more, Varia also slyly highlighted the fact that Samsung is itself currently embroiled in a patent suit against Apple called “Emoticon Input Method for Mobile.” This, it asserts, shows that Samsung has explicitly “recognized the value of the type of invention embodied in the ℠731 Patent.”

“Samsung is a prolific patent filer that actively protects its intellectual property rights,” the official filing added.

Varia´s filing adds yet another thread to the tangled web of patent-infringement lawsuits that has become one of the most salient and troubling features of the tech-industry landscape in recent years.

Varia has said it will seek an as yet unspecified sum in financial damages and would like to have a jury trial. The company is also requesting injunctive relief against Samsung and RIM which would require them to temporarily stop the sales of certain products.