Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Part 1: Singaporean starts a "Refute VueStar Patent Claims Website"

I learned about the VueStar Patent Claim controversy today.

From ZDnet Asia:
Long story short, Singapore-based Vuestar Technologies has hit the town with a stern message that any company that uses photos and graphics to link to other Web sites or Web pages, must obtain a "license of use" from Vuestar. It has begun sending out notification letters to selected companies, urging them to sign a licensing agreement in order to continue using image linking, legally.
VueStar -- www.vuestar.biz -- a Singapore-registered company (not Singaporean per se) has asked companies and individuals to pay up in order to use its technology for ‘locating Web pages by utilising visual images’.
Vuestar Website

As I understand it, VueStar is not bringing people to court. Yet.

They are telling individuals to pay them.

Because Vuestar holds the patent to what it says is the technology whereby websites "use visual images to hyperlink to parts of the worldwide web":
Claims to the "Vuestar System"

Meaning, if you access a webpage by clicking on any of the images in this blog, you're using their technology. Since Google owns Blogger.com, then VueStar has a case against Google.

Or so it seems.

My instant gut-reaction was that VueStar is using the threat of law, not the actual law itself, to scare individuals into compliance.

The Vuestar license

But my post isn't only about Vuestar's claims.

It's about a Singaporean who decided create a website for the purpose of refuting VueStar patent claims, aptly named "Refute VueStar Patent".

It's poetic that a Singaporean has initiated this against a Singapore-registered company.

Initially her site was named "SueVueStar.biz" but I suggested to her that "Refute VueStar" might be a better term. Less acrimonious.

Alice explains why she set up the site, here.

Clearly, it's active citizenry in action.

Alice also tells me the matter is quite complicated. What she's found out is that it's hard to challenge a valid patent. The onus is also on the defendent to prove that there's no infringement (there are some legal precedents which I don't understand fully, so I won't attempt to cite it here).

She adds that in VueStar's case, there are 39 claims to the patent. The defendent has to refute all 39 claims.

It seems that patents rights will always be enforced until the patent is invalidated. Or at least till there is an application for re-examination.

Kevin points me to Lawrence Lessig's 1999 article on "The Problem with Patents", and now I can better appreciate why Lessig feels there's a problem. Here's a quote:
On average it takes $1.2 million to challenge the validity of a patent, which means it is often cheaper simply to pay the royalties than to establish that the patent isn't deserved.
That's USD $1.2 million, at 1999 dollars.

I can believe how some companies in the US can make it their business to just file patents and claim payments or damages.

To me, the sad part is that the whole issue is less about Intellectual Property rights, but more about attrition, i.e. whoever cannot afford the legal fees (and loss of time) may choose to pay up rather than go to court.

It reminds me of gangsters extorting money from commoners, who choose to pay "protection fees" rather than fight the gangsters.

I suppose every business has its risks.

And educated bullies.

I feel an impotent rage right now.

But I take comfort in knowing at least one Singaporean is doing what she can to be constructive about it.

[Update: I shared this case with some web developers I know, like Divya. I was interested in how the Singapore web developer community would react. At first, Divya was ambivalent towards it. But after further discussion, she thought it might be prudent to think further about the implications of this case.

I think we need to do that -- discuss and raise awareness. While we cannot directly effect a change in US patent law, the least we can do is to raise awareness among those who might be affected.]

Some related posts:

Next: Part 2 - "Why you might want to care"


  1. Ivan, good eye spotting this example of active citizenry and for highlighting a good line from Lessig's article. In this era of smartmobs, I really wonder if these actions from VueStar would really be worth the backlash from their various publics.

  2. This patent also puts flickr users in an interesting situation. Flickr's terms of service require that every time you post a picture they are hosting you embed a link back to the flickr page. They even provide the html code for you if it is your picture, which is apparently now in violation of the image-link patent. What is a user to do?

  3. Hi Sara, I think onus is on Vuestar to try and get Yahoo! (who owns Filckr) to pay the Vuestar license :)

  4. Hi Ivan,

    The thing is, Vuestar may not target Yahoo! at all. So the onus actually becomes on the Singapore website owners, that we should all ban together to refute the claim and revoke the patent.

  5. Hi Cobalt Paladin, as I understand from what I read from the Vuestar website, the license is imposed on web service providers. Yahoo! is the service provider in this case, not me the individual user. On a separate note, I agree that the online community should band together and see how to work out this issue (whether we are service providers or not).

  6. Sorry, for clarification to your last comment: Should Vuestar make a license fees claim to Yahoo! or not?

  7. Thats why sites and impromptu set-ups like refutevuestar.biz is a great idea. Individually one may not have the funds to fight it out. But, once we get every single one that Vuestar is targeting together for a class action suit (the site is a good meeting point, it only needs more publicity to get everyone together) and pool funds, THEN countersue (maybe for defamation for cooking up a frivilous suit and implying criminal behaviour on the part of the "infringer") for costs (of fighting the case).... That may make Vuestar halt.

    And the ironic thing is that the Aussies will stand to benefit from it since we're all under commonwealth law and any Australian site that gets sued by Goldspirit Investments (the Australian parent company of Vuestar, also set up by Ronald Langford) could probably quote this case as precedence.....

  8. @Cobalt: Your question is asking whether I think Vuestar should make a claim against Yahoo!... that's something only Vuestar can decide.

    If you're asking whether Vuestar can make a claim against Yahoo! or Google etc, well they supposedly can, according to reports and articles written so far. But again, I'm not sure and I don't really grasp 100% of the patent claims. Next best thing maybe is to email Vuestar! :)


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