Newer technologies are often fertile ground for patent litigation, and VoIP has proven to be no exception. One patent cloud hovering over the burgeoning VoIP market has dissipated, as Comcast won a judgment in a patent infringement lawsuit filed in July 2005 by Caritas Technologies. A final judgment entered last week found that Comcast had not infringed on a VoIP patent filed for in March 2002 and awarded in late 2003.
The patent in question, no. 6,661,779, describes a "dial up telephone conferencing system controlled by an online computer network." At first glance, the patent doesn’t look at all relevant to VoIP. However, Caritas said that the patent could be interpreted to cover any call that travels over the Internet via VoIP.
An opinion issued by Judge David Folsom in October sealed Caritas’ fate. In a 32-page Claim Construction Order, Judge Folsom agreed with Comcast’s interpretation of the patent. Referring to Caritas’ claim that its patent covered calls over a "dial up communication network"—meaining VoIP—Folsom found that "Plaintiff’s argument attempts to undermine this ordinary meaning by employing a physical meaning and applying it to create the appearance of absurdity," agreeing with Comcast’s position that the patent was limited to calls made over traditional public switched telephone networks.
Caritas is a small Wisconsin company formed by the four men who were granted the patent under dispute. The patent holders claimed that Comcast’s Digital Voice VoIP service infringed on the patent and sought $2.2 billion in damages. Once the judge’s order made it clear to Caritas that the he was not buying the company’s interpretation of the patent, Caritas and Comcast agreed to a final judgment of non-infringement, with Caritas filing a notice of appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Had Comcast been found to have infringed on the patent, it would have had broad ramifications for the growing VoIP market. Caritas could have followed NTP’s example with the BlackBerry, forcing companies offering VoIP to license the patents or risk costly litigation and damages. Such a move would have put Comcast, Vonage, and other VoIP providers on the defensive, possibly forcing them to raise their rates, making their service less competitive with traditional landlines.
Rest assured: there’s still plenty of VoIP patent fun to be had. Shortly after its IPO in May, Vonage was hit with a patent infringement lawsuit from Verizon. That suit, which is still in its early stages, alleges infringement of seven different VoIP-related patents owned by Verizon.