Click-to-Call companies face patent troll trouble

“Click-to-call” is a feature that lets users make a phone call by tapping a button on a website. The feature is a hit with merchants who want to reach an online audience and also represents a bright spot for the mobile ad industry.
Now, a shell company is taking aim at the flourishing click-to-call industry with a sweeping patent first issued in 1998 for an “anonymous voice communication using an online data service.” In a series of lawsuits filed this week in Texas, the shell company is targeting AT&T (s T), Oracle (s orcl) and a range of banks and retailers for using any products “which include a telephony call initiated on a website.”
A patent attorney for the company refused to say if the claims referred to phone calls initiated through browsers, apps or both. But language in the lawsuit like “a website or Internet Protocol interface” suggests the patent owner is casting a wide net.
US patent 5,818,836 itself has a strange history. Twelve years ago, the inventor licensed it to a company that would eventually become an AT&T subsidiary known as Ingenio which then turned around and challenged the patent. In 2004, the US Patent Office agreed to cancel the patent before reinstating an amended version of it in 2008.
Today, the same owner, Stephen Du Val appears to be trying his luck once again by assigning the patent to a shell company called “Click-to Call Technologies LP” and filing a series of lawsuits.
There is a lot at stake if the shell company succeeds. As my colleague Kevin Fitchard explained last week, plumbers and pizzerias love click-to-call because it lets them reach customers at the right place and at the right time. Meanwhile, advertisers like Google (s goog) have discovered that mobile ads with the click-to-call feature produce a higher click-through rate.
If the patent lawsuits succeed, the shell company could be poised to collect royalties on every company that uses the click-to-cal feature. This would like force retailers like Macy’s, Dell and Carnival Cruises (all named in the lawsuits) to pass on the royalty costs to the consumer. The companies are likely to challenge the patent as obvious and invalid.
Here’s one of the complaints:
Click to Call Patent Suit
(Image by beboy via Shutterstock)