Wednesday, February 18, 2009

NeoMedia Wins One For the Dark Side

UPDATED 30 Apr 09: Interestingly, this post sat dormant for weeks and just today three new replies came in a flurry. What a coincidence! One talks of how TinyURL infringes on NeoMedia's patent. One is a reply to another commentor. And one, why, one suggests that I have no testicles! At all! Which is true! But rather a mundane fact to point out, and so angrily (also, Jim, water is wet!). And also, things may be "getting legal", yowza! Not sure what that means but it sounds scary, doesn't it? Eek!

Clearly this economy (and swine flu!) is affecting everyone, creepy mouthpieces for random strangers coincidentally interested in NeoMedia's "interests" and barcode bloggers alike.

Like I said, all y'all folks with dogs in this fight: I'd be taking notes and backin 'em up to hard disk if I were you.

After protracted review, the US Patent & Trademark Office recently ruled in favor of evil attorney cabal tech company NeoMedia. For years NeoMedia has argued that they own absolutely everything having to do with barcodes + cellphones, and they own all barcodes + looking them up on the intertubes. They also own a patent on you. And your dog. And your mom.

While the Electronic Frontier Foundation valiantly begged to differ, devoting years and miles of effort, funds and reason to disputing this sort of mercenary dipshittery, it's all over now but the crying.

"Overbroad and invalid patents threaten to chill important innovations, especially for startups and other nascent entrepreneurs. It's important that technology in the public domain stays there." EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jason Schultz said in 2007.

The US PTO has changed all that in one fell swoop of patent validation. NeoMedia can now threaten and actively initiate lawsuits against anyone who creates, uses, promotes or dreams up anything having to do with their special corner of the auto-ID universe. Pay the NeoMedia licensing fee/s now, or pay them after a financially crippling lawsuit- it's entirely up to you!

This would be marginally acceptable if NeoMedia had created a unique technology of their own. But they didn't; these patents are based entirely on murky, factually-suspect claims of prior art. They now have a patent on using barcodes that they didn't create (which are based on font and image technology that they didn't create), with camera phones (which they didn't create) that take photos of said barcodes, the phone applications (that they didn't create) which translate those pictures into data (which they didn't create) which can be used to direct the user to a database (that they didn't create, and don't own) on the internet.

This means that if you scan a barcode that has a URL in it with an app on your cellphone, NeoMedia may attempt to squeeze cash from every developer in the chain: the maker of the barcode, the cellphone app developer, the cellphone maker, the cellphone carrier, and the owner of the destination internet database. Also, of course, your mom.

This means you, Google. NeoMedia's sure to go after the big guys first, right? Some dude who's running from blog to blog threatening lawsuits sure thinks so. Wonder if NeoMedia knows he's picking fights with some very big dogs on their behalf? Of course he could be NeoMedia's president and CEO for all we know (either way, I'd be making a hard copy or ten of all such blog and forum comments if I were, say, Scanbuy or ShopSavvy or ZXing..).

Whatever happens, it will certainly be interesting to watch. Pop some corn and pull up a chair.

US patent #6,993,573

US patent#7,383,209


  1. I think it's important for people to understand that the patent (suspect as it remains), is not actually that broad, and was narrowed by the re-exam. See Mike's detailed analysis of what the patent actually means:

    In particular, this certainly does not cover 'direct encoding' of URLs in barcodes, nor even many applications involving a remote server.

    Of course, I do agree that even what remains does not seem to contain novel ideas or novel combinations of existing ideas, which is a prerequisite for patents to be valid.

    Google, in particular, seems to be doing nothing that is relevant to this patent. This patent covers forms of 'indirect encoding' which I personally believe is becoming an obsolete approach anyhow.

  2. Good points, srowen, though I think that unfortunately this latest decision will have the intended effect, valid or no: quashing innovation from all but the deepest-pocketed of companies.

    "It's better to beg forgiveness than permission" doesn't really apply when it comes to patent lawsuits. The smaller fish (my company included) may have to sit on our hands and wait for bigger fish to challenge it first.

  3. Here's a novel idea. How about reading NeoMedia's patents and understanding what they actually cover?

    I'll even provide a link for your convenience:

    NeoMedia Technologies grandfathered this technology back in the mid 90’s and have been doing mobile code scanning and comparison shopping via barcodes long before any other company in this space.

    NeoMedia on ABC & NBC News circa 2004:

    NeoMedia has a rich patent portfolio that covers scanning barcodes with a camera enabled mobile device to connect to the Internet, comparison shop, and/or retrieve online content.

    According to NeoMedia's CEO Iain McCready:

    "A couple of competitors in the USA have already asked us for a free license but we can’t accept that. We are a business and so are they. In a reasonable manner at a fair price we want to move forward with this."

    "We have invested so much in this and have had battle after battle. But now we are going to power ahead and make this work. I am open to discussion and we want to be seen as fair. We want the whole mobile barcode market to succeed and the license fee model is tried and tested and it works. It can be as simple or as difficult as people want it to be and we aim to keep it simple."

    "We have been working very very closely with both the GSMA and the OMA. By being connected, the introduction of a license model can and will only succeed."

    Sounds like both the OMA and the GSMA standards bodies will be supporting NeoMedia and their licensing model going forward.

    This is a win-win for the entire mobile code ecosystem.


  4. Anonymous3:13 AM

    First, the article I am commenting on fall somewhere between ridiculous and outrageous (especially the associated picture, which can only be interpreted as implying that some illicit pay-off was involved in the USPTO's recent decision in favor of Neomedia).

    Second, why is that only big companies are allowed to have valid patents? Small companies that patent useful tech are uniformly, and unfairly, disparaged as "trolls". That label certainly cannot be applied to Neomedia, which has spent an enormous amount of money and professional effort developing not just its patent portfolio but also useful products based on those patents.

    Finally, if you want to read something far more factually acurate than anything else out there (including the EFF's suspect analysis of the decision) on the USPTO decision, and the scope of the concerned patent, you should review this:,199,048.html

  5. Indirect encoding? Does this mean that encoding a tinyurl instead of normal (and possibly long) URL (see - just to save space - is indirect encoding?

    Any ideas are welcome.

  6. Tec-IT,

    Tiny URL utilizes a browser redirect which is an indirect methodology thus infringing NeoMedia's patents.


  7. NeilPeart4:14 PM

    SROWEN: I would like to hear your definition of 'direct encoding'. Thank you.

  8. It's interesting that the writter of this piece doesn't have the balls to put their real name on their own article. I'd be willing to bet they don't have the balls to post this comment either.

    By the way, you better disclose that SROWEN works for Google. Or this is going to get legal.

  9. I have a lot of confusion about indirect encoding . i would like to know more about it in 2 lines definition .

    Thank you .

  10. i would like to know more about the indirect encoding .

  11. I found this old post again while searching for something else today.

    No, an HTTP redirect does *not* fall under the 048 patent. Read it. It talks of UPC codes mapped to URL, actually, not even general identifiers -- let alone URLs mapped to URLs. It also requires pre-existing mappings, and mappings that exist on a remote server. This simply, plainly does not describe an HTTP 302 redirect.

    @NeilPeart: Direct encoding in this context, in contrast to indirect, means encoding a URL into a barcode. Doing this alone puts one outside any claim related to the 048 patent, since again, it plainly refers to UPC code mapping to things, not URLs.

    @Jim: I did work for Google until August 2008 and helped develop the 'zebra crossing' barcode reader project. My dog in this hunt is that people like you and streetstylz make false claims of patent infringement related to this work, and I won't let people make claims without substantiation and get away with it.

    Anyone is feel to debate the issues here, or others, on this thread, or others, or directly with me. I am srowen, at gmail.

  12. Anonymous5:50 PM

    Awesome post.