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Another Spam-Filtering Lawsuit; This One over a Patent

8/2/11

By Ken Magill

A little-known outfit is suing a curious collection of well-known Internet-related companies claiming that by using information from Return Path’s email certification program to help filter out spam, the companies are violating its patent.

What’s more, it would appear the company in question—BuyerLeverage Email Solutions—is suing a bunch of seemingly random companies over a business model that was tried and proven unworkable several years ago.

Filed in Delaware, the suit names AT&T, Cisco, Comcast Corp., Microsoft Corp., SureWest Communications, Time Warner Cable, Yahoo! and Knology as defendants.

How BuyerLeverage decided to sue these particular firms is unclear given that dozens of other companies that use Return Path’s email certification services could also be named.

And even more curiously, the suit does not name Return Path.

BuyerLeverage’s lawyer, George Pazuniak, said he could not comment on the suit without permission from co-counsel and his client, which could not be immediately obtained.

The patent BuyerLeverage claims the companies are violating is No. 7379972, a “system and method for granting deposit contingent emailing rights.”

Under BuyerLeverage’s email sender-accreditation program, senders “make a deposit of something of value,” presumable money, “which is lost if recipients of the emails click to disapprove,” according to copy on the company’s website.

“For the sending of commercial emails,” it continues, “senders make a substantial pre-payment in order to send accredited emails over a particular time period. But the accreditation, and the ability to send such emails, is withdrawn when recipients complain, and the infringing senders are not reimbursed for the unused portion of their contract.”

Essentially, senders put up a bond and when email recipients complain, the offending senders lose part of their bond.

If this business model sounds familiar, it’s because it is identical to IronPort Systems’ Bonded Sender program, which was launched in 2002—and which no longer exists in its original form.

Return Path bought Bonded Sender from IronPort Systems in 2005 and in less than a year re-launched the so-called whitelisting program—where non-spamming emailers get accredited as such and presumably get better inbox treatment from ISPs—as Sender Score Certified.

As part of the re-launch, Return Path eliminated the bond aspect of the program.

According to a blog post at the time by Return Path CEO Matt Blumberg, the bond was eliminated because “there isn’t a purchasing department in America that knows how to post a bond or understands why they should; and… as far as ISPs were concerned, even though mailers had to pass some serious hurdles to join the program, mailers who were in the program still managed to generate too many complaints among their end users.”

As a result, Blumberg wrote: “Bye-Bye Bond.”

How companies using a non-bonded email whitelisting program could violate the patent of a bonded system is unclear.

Author’s note: When I first got wind of this lawsuit, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what company BuyerLeverage’s business model was similar to. After I posed the question on Twitter, John Caldwell of Red Pill Email and Matthew Vernhout, founder of EmailKarma.net, were kind enough to respond and jog my memory. Thanks, guys.

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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Laura Atkins
Date: 2011-08-03 13:19:44
Subject:

I pulled the docs and posted them http://blog.wordtothewise.com/2011/08/patenting-whitelisting-then-suing-people-who-use-it/. To me this looks like a single guy with 4 email patents. One of them was filed in 2001, which I think is the only one he has a hope of winning on. But they're all pretty complicated and I can't see the infringement. Best I can tell, they put another layer over SMTP that does the payment/deposit scheme. That's not what Bonded Sender did.
Posted by: Len Shneyder
Date: 2011-08-03 12:52:44
Subject:

Just recently NPR's This American Life ran a great show about Intellectual Ventures and the "Patent Trolls." They mentioned a company based in Marshall Texas that essentially just sues other companies over internet technology patents. They have thousands of shell companies... I'm wondering if this is somehow related: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/441/when-patents-attack
Posted by: David Romerstein
Date: 2011-08-02 14:48:23
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Interestingly, that patent was filed in July of 2005, just over 3 months after Return Path announced the purchase of Bonded Sender. I suspect there's a prior art argument, assuming BuyerLeverage finds a way to make the bond patent applicable to the suit.

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