Let's Talk Trolls

Patent Trolls Lay Claim to Emoticons and the Twilight Premiere Date

Can a company really own emoticons?
 Patent Trolls Lay Claim to Emoticons and the Twilight Premiere Date

Emoticons, making the world a better place one ^_^ at a time. (fotopia.com)

Say the term “patent” aloud, and the guttural “ughs” erupting from the throats of open source fans everywhere will keel you over sideways. Say the term “patent troll,” and you’ll automatically feel their collective scorn tunneling deep into your heart. But open source lovers do have a point.

Patent trolls–people who buy up patents for absurdly broad ideas and then sue companies who infringe upon them–are the kind of people who stifle innovation and inhibit the tech industry from properly exploring its creative side. They also claim to own things that should belong to the general public–like emoticons, for instance.

Varia Holdings, a parent company of Varia Mobil, is suing Samsung and Reasearch in Motion for creating a button that makes it easy for users to choose emoticons from a menu. The patent claims that “few email or instant messaging applications offer any assistance to a user to enter and use emoticons in their communications.”

Yes, you read that right: apparently Varia thinks it owns emoticons. Does that mean we’re going to get sued for textually rendering the current face we’re making? ‘Cuz it’s this one: o_O

To be fair, the patent is for the emoticon button, not emoticons themselves, which Despair Inc. jokingly tried to patent back in 2001. But how are we ever supposed to express our inner feelings online if we’re threatened with legal action every time we text a smiley face?

Unfortunately, emoticons aren’t the only things big companies are trying to own. Today, Sci Tech Watch pointed to a note published by a Zazzle artist who says Summit Entertainment won’t let her sell an image because she posted it on the same day Twilight: New Moon came out.

Zazzle told Kelly Howlett, the artist, “Your product has been removed from Zazzle’s Marketplace due to an infringement claim by Summit Entertainment. This may be due to the actual design of the product, description, search tags or character names that references the Twilight Saga which is owned by Summit Entertainment.”

Turns out the day she published her sketch is the same day as New Moon’s release date, 11/20/09. The date got appended as a tag, and Summit used these grounds to remove Ms. Howlett’s drawing from Zazzle.

Thankfully, Zazzle eventually put the image back up, since it clearly has nothing to do with Twilight.

It’s a shame that companies waste so much time trying to make money off of old technologies instead of actually creating new ones. But that’s the way of the patent troll, and until open sourcing code and ideas becomes a larger business practice, it’s unlikely to stop any time soon. Whatever the case, Varia Holdings better keep its hands off of our emoticons. >:(

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com