back to article Hey, AT&T, you ripped off our smartwatch-phone group call tech – and we want our $1bn, say entrepreneur pair

AT&T has been sued by two Seattle entrepreneurs who accused the telecoms giant of stealing their technology and launching a rip-off version to avoid paying massive royalty fees. They now want $1.35bn for breach of contract and patent infringement: $450m in unpaid royalties and triple damages for "willful and egregious …

  1. jay margo

    What am I missing?

    I'm all for the small guy sticking it to ATT but how did they allegedly invent and then patent a feature VOIP phones were already offering years before? And why did ATT need them or their method to do something one would guess was already well within ATT's capabilities - though obviously not.

    1. claimed

      Re: What am I missing?

      Americans let you patent software... so... logical operations...

      Even better, somehow performing logical operations on a new logic machine that looks a bit different is different logic.

      Pay day.

    2. MrReynolds2U

      Re: What am I missing?

      Agreed. I have written a similar procedure in Asterisk. I believe it's colloquially known as "Follow Me" where I've seen it implemented by Elastix and the like.

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: What am I missing?

        Yup, I've seen this functionality as 'Find Me/Follow Me', or variations on hunt groups. It's functionality that's been around on PBX and SP switches waay before the patent date. Especially as big switches became IP and simpler to extend management interfaces to users, ie IP-Centrex style solutions, or features in Nortel's CS2K.

        But the Death Star does seem to have rather shot itself in the foot by first agreeing to license IP, then breaking that agreement. IANAL, but curious if it'd be easier for AT&T to challenge the patent on prior art, but presumably that would still leave them open to claims for contract breach.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: What am I missing?

          Both the previous examples sound, to a layman like me to be related to extension numbers on the users side of their own switchboard. This system is something the Telcos do on their side of the switch and re-direct to multiple consumer lines even using different technologies such as land-line. mobile and VOIP. Right or wrong? I dunno.

          1. Roland6 Silver badge

            Re: What am I missing?

            > This system is something the Telcos do on their side of the switch and re-direct to multiple consumer lines even using different technologies such as land-line. mobile and VOIP. Right or wrong?

            Right, the limitation seems to be that all numbers need to be within a single service providers network.

            I think the key to the patent is that it requires the service providers network to be adapted so that any number within that network can be part of the group rather than just numbers within a specific number range - which is the case with Centrix/PBX solutions.

            So in old speak its an IN service.

            1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

              Re: What am I missing?

              I think the key to the patent is that it requires the service providers network to be adapted so that any number within that network can be part of the group rather than just numbers within a specific number range - which is the case with Centrix/PBX solutions.

              So in old speak its an IN service.

              Yup. The rise of IP-based or just 'smarter' network switches allowed for a lot of exciting new voice features. So traditional hunt groups would as you say typically hunt within a specified block of provisioned DDI numbers. New switches extended capability so customers could use a web interface to define their own groups, or configure permitted service features. Those wouldn't necessarily have to use the SP's allocated numbers, eg creating call groups based on DDI and mobile numbers.

              But basically IN (Intelligent Network) functionality spawned softswitches, which became IMS (IP Multi-Media Services) and spawned acronym soup like this-

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IP_Multimedia_Subsystem#/media/File:TISPAN_IMS_Reference_Architecture.png

              And the ability to confuse customers (and sales) with long lists of features that they never knew they wanted, but kept marketing types happy because they could offer more 'Virtual PBX' or IP-Centrex options than their competitors. And also bug the hell out of me when marketing figured sales should have a (you guessed it) Excel spreadsheet provisioning form that neither sales nor customers understood and couldn't be imported straight into provisioning.. Give or take some rules/self-preservation checking.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          @Jellied Eel Re: What am I missing?

          You're not missing anything.

          But it's not necessarily a shot in the foot.

          It depends on what happened.

          AT&T can say that they entered the agreement in good faith and during their due diligence they found that the tech being used is something that they already had. (Just needed to write some code.)

          Or something else.

          Short of actually stealing the code, they would only be on the hook for the exit amount... provided the company negotiated one w AT&T.

    3. Cuddles Silver badge

      Re: What am I missing?

      "And why did ATT need them or their method to do something one would guess was already well within ATT's capabilities"

      For that part, I assume the answer is simply that it was cheaper and easier to contract it out to someone who already had a solution rather than building it from scratch themselves. When they figured out how much it would actually cost to license it, they changed their minds.

      As for why it was patentable at all, obviously I don't know enough about the details to say anything for sure. But it does seem as though a system to group multiple normal phones as a single number, while also allowing them to behave as individual numbers when required, could require a very different solution from doing it for VOIP phones, so there may well be something deserving of a patent in there.

      1. FIA Silver badge

        Re: What am I missing?

        As for why it was patentable at all, obviously I don't know enough about the details to say anything for sure. But it does seem as though a system to group multiple normal phones as a single number, while also allowing them to behave as individual numbers when required, could require a very different solution from doing it for VOIP phones, so there may well be something deserving of a patent in there

        It's confused me has this. It sounds like they have a case, AT&T has failed to do due dilligance, got stung signing an over priced contrac (oh, the irony) and is now trying to screw the little guy.

        However, the patent, unless I'm missing something, seems to be 'Lets have 2 groups of phone numbers that can talk to each other based on these rules and some as yet unspecified software and hardware'.

        How you actually go about any of this, ie, the implementation details, seem to be sorely lacking, which, surely is the actual point of an invention? (If not I have an idea for an invisible car....)

        "The activity handling rule configuration module 316 may determine sets of one or more rules that implement telephone service activity handling policies including grouped telephone number call policies such as grouped telephone number incoming call policies and grouped telephone number outgoing call policies and similar policies for other types of telephone service activity such as SMS messaging. "

        According to diagram, 316 is a black rectangular outline with the words 'Activity Handling Rules Configuration' written centrally within. Or, with my work hat on... one of those diagrams where someone has gone 'Here's the magical thing', and you're sat there thinking 'Oh... great.. I've got to make that actually work now'.

      2. Scurling

        Re: What am I missing?

        If you look at the patent - It's clear that the patent is focused on providing functionality to a cellular network provided phone numbers, not a VOIP number.

    4. Youngone Silver badge

      Re: What am I missing?

      I have to work with AT&T and wouldn't trust anyone who works for that company to sit the right way round on the toilet.

      1. MrBanana Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: What am I missing?

        "sit the right way round on the toilet"

        Oh, one of my favourites. Not heard it for a long time. Have a ------->

    5. Trigonoceps occipitalis

      Re: What am I missing?

      I remember PBX Hunting on Strowager exchanges. I suppose "on a mobile" merits a patent?

      Mind you AT&T seem to have right royally ripped off others' IP, patentable or not.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @Jay Margo Re: What am I missing?

      Err. yes and no...

      So... w digital switches you could do things like call forwarding and three way calling.

      (You could even 'tap' a line at the digital switch where it would be impossible for someone to know that they are being recorded/monitored...)

      With VOIP systems... yes you could set it up to do that. You get to program anything you want...

      So setting up a call forwarding list.

      Not sure how they got the patent.

      As to AT&T, if they modified the call forwarding and group calling features, they could do the same thing.

      AT&T could also enhance a ring tone or the call sequence if there's a 'family emergency'. (e.g. add a #911 to the phone number. #999 for you Brits) There's a bit more to it, but you get the idea.

      Posted Anon because way back when... I wrote some of the code that controls these features in a certain company's switch product.

  2. don't you hate it when you lose your account

    Ha

    Made my day. Hope the small guys get what was stolen with a bonus score.

    1. JimboSmith Silver badge

      Re: Ha

      Yeah AT&T deserve this, they're idiots for being so cavalier when the patent holders have so much documentation about the deal and crucially the patents.

  3. JWLong

    Stupid

    Look up stupid in a dictionary and you will see "AT&T.

    Lawyers and bean counters never fail to amaze me.

  4. ecofeco Silver badge

    at&t you say?

    I hope they get what they deserve. In spades.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: at&t you say?

      "I hope they get what they deserve. In spades."

      Good idea! They can dig an even deeper hole :-)

  5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    If they'd had any sense ATT would have made an offer to buy out the original contract once they realised their mistake. It would have cost them somewhat but saved in the long run. This time round they'll have to do it. Very likely it will cost them more.

  6. Missing Semicolon Silver badge

    They will spend billions

    .. on lawyers, to batter the other side into a climbdown. Otherwise, every jumped-up "little guy" with a case might try it on. And we can't have that! Big corps are above such things.

    See the amount of trouble Ford went to to defend the Pinto suit, in comparison to the $1 a car the chunk of plastic cost to fix the problem.

  7. big_D Silver badge

    Multi-SIM?

    What was wrong with simply using multi-SIMs on the accounts, where they have multiple devices?

    My T-Mobile contract (Germany) includes 3 SIM cards with the same number, one for the phone, one for an iPad or laptop and one for a smartwatch, for example, or multiple phones. All the SIMs are connected to the same number, they don't each have a different number that is "grouped", they just have the one number.

    That has been the case for a couple of decades. A friend used to have it with his car phone and mobile phone, for example.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Multi-SIM?

      And you give each phone to a different member of your extended family is case one of the kids has an emergency per the article example? Can you extend the group and add more phones? What happens when your mistress calls and Granny is first to answer as each phone in the group, all having the same number, all ring at the same time?

      1. big_D Silver badge

        Re: Multi-SIM?

        The case for AT&T was for multiple-devices belonging to 1 person being reachable over a single number.

        In Europe, this has been possible with the multi-SIM technology for a couple of decades. The different SIMs log into the network and get assigned the same number and ring at the same time.

        I agree, for the plaintiff, their technology solved a bigger problem, with the calling groups, something that PABX systems have been able to do internally since at least the 80s, but wasn't generally available to small customers (i.e. individuals and families) from the telcos. I am referring specifically to the AT&T usecase.

        What happens when your mistress calls and Granny is first to answer as each phone in the group, all having the same number, all ring at the same time?

        Sorry, that argument doesn't hold up. Even with the plaintiff's system, if you aren't quick enough to pick up, it rings by your granny, or your wife, anyway...

  8. martinusher Silver badge

    This isn't a new feature

    Automatically transferring to alternate numbers when a line is busy or doesn't answer is a POTS feature that dates back to Heaven only knows when. The only possible novelty here is consumerization -- back in the day it wasn't something you could do from a consumer's interface (because the consumer didn't really have one -- those of us who used to struggle with office phone systems know just how naff the phone is for anything except dialing numbers).

    It will be interesting to see how this pans out. Maybe AT&T will buy these people off for a couple of million just to make the nuisance go away. I hope they don't because I really don't like the way that people just assume that because they're unaware of something that they must have invented it. There's plenty of scope for real invention out there but it appears that the real money is in putting together some kind of patent that you can use to pose as the little guy sitcking it to the bid, bad, corporate monster.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Usually Software / Process Patents = Evil but AT&T = Eviler so...

    I hope they get taken to the cleaners..

  10. Falmari Silver badge
    Pirate

    Corporate greed

    I will ignore should it really be patentable or not. But It does not seem that simple to do as AT&T could just have done it rather than go to the plaintiffs and agree a contract.

    So, AT&T are about to roll out this service to the customers which I am sure would be much more than $1*. They start to estimate how many customers would go for the service and find it’s a lot. But rather than looking at much they are going to make, greed kicks in. All they see is what a lot of money the plaintiffs will make and decide we want that too.

    Corporate greed at is finest not content they are going to make more than they anticipated. But because it is now a much bigger pie they want an even larger slice of the pie.

    * Would be nice if the article included the current price of the service AT&T now offer.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022