Named in the suit are AOL, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, Yahoo and YouTube, which Google owns. The companies are allegedly using technology developed in the 1990s by now-defunct Interval Research Corp., a technology incubator funded by Allen during the Internet bubble.
Interval Licensing holds the patents from Interval Research, which in its heyday employed more than 110 scientists, physicists and engineers who developed scores of fundamental web technologies. Interval Research also helped fund outside projects, including the early stage work of Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, who went on to start Google, according to Interval Licensing.
Facebook, which is accused infringing one of the four patents listed in the suit, denied the allegations. "We believe this suit is completely without merit and we will fight it vigorously," the company said in a statement emailed to InformationWeek.
The patents cover technology that Interval Licensing says is "fundamental to the ways that leading e-commerce and search companies operate today." The technology includes ways of delivering through a browser items that may be of interest to an online shopper checking out other products on an e-commerce site. The same technology has been adapted for used in social networks and in delivering search results.
"This lawsuit is necessary to protect our investment in innovation," David Postman, spokesman for billionaire Allen, said in a statement. "We are not asserting patents that other companies have filed, nor are we buying patents originally assigned to someone else. These are patents developed by and for Interval."
The latter point appears to refer to patent-buying companies that have been successful in enforcing patents without actually making any products themselves. One such company is NTP Inc., which recently won $612 million in a suit filed against BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion. In July, NTP filed patent infringement suits against Apple, Google, HTC, LG Electronics, Microsoft and Motorola.
In its response to the suit, Google implied that Interval Licensing was in the same business as NTP. "This lawsuit against some of America 's most innovative companies reflects an unfortunate trend of people trying to compete in the courtroom instead of the marketplace," the company said in a statement sent to InformationWeek. "Innovation -- not litigation -- is the way to bring to market the kinds of products and services that benefit millions of people around the world."
Missing from Interval Licensing's latest suit is Microsoft, which Allen co-founded with Bill Gates. Allen remains a major investor in the company. Also missing is Amazon.com, based in Allen's hometown of Seattle.
Forbes magazine estimates Allen's worth at $13.5 billion. His investments since leaving Microsoft more than two decades ago have gone beyond technology to sport teams, including the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers, and cable TV. Allen is founder and chairman of Vulcan Inc., a private asset management company. Last year, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer.