Top Tech Companies Sued for Using…Icons?

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Michigan’s Cygnus Systems, Inc., a company focused on networking support and development, has filed a patent infringement lawsuit (PDF) against Microsoft, Apple, and Google for&mash;get this—using icons to represents files. But not just any icons: representational thumbnails that reflect the onscreen display of a particular document or file. Such miniaturized thumbnails are now a common feature of many software products, including Apple’s Finder and iTunes software (think Cover Flow), Windows Explorer, and Google’s Chrome browser—and if Cygnus is willing to go after those three companies, they might be considering action against Adobe and Opera (which have products with similar interfaces) and even Web-based music and photo services like Amazon’s MP3 Store and Flickr which, after all, offer thumbnail representations of files.

Cygnus applied for the patent, number 7,346,850, way back in June, 1998, but it was only granted in March of 2008. Since then, presumably, the company has been trying to get companies (like Apple, Google, and Microsoft) to license the patent, but apparently no agreements could be reached, so the company has filed suit. Cygnus Systems is seeking an injunction to prevent other companies from infringing on its patent, along with damages and fees. Interestingly, the company is seeking damages back to the date the infringement began, which in many cases would land substantially before Cygnus’s patent was granted.

If the case goes to trial, industry watchers expect the legal teams of the targeted companies will attempt to have Cygnus’s patent invalidated on the basis of prior art: numerous instances of representational thumbnail icons for files existed on numerous operating systems prior to Cygnus’s 1998 patent application, and the technique was employed by several companies including Apple and Adobe.

Apple and Microsoft declined to comment on the suit; Google and Cygnus Systems could not be reached for comment.

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