I had a listen to the second part to This American Life’s excellent two part series on patent trolls (the first part is here) and how the use of weaponized software patents is squashing innovation.

The podcast outlined the plight of entrepreneurs too afraid to start business for fears of being sued out of existence by shell companies that own broadly defined patents for no other purpose than to shake down founders too cash strapped to defend themselves. While listening, I recalled an episode that took place while at Yahoo where we were the victim of exactly this type of attack. Here’s how it went down.

It was late-2007 when Todd Sampson, the co-founder of MyBlogLog, the small social network acquired by Yahoo earlier that year, contacted me to tell me that we (Todd and I worked together at MBL while I was at Yahoo) had been contacted by a small company in Israel called Girafa notifying us that the screenshots used on the site were in violation of a patent owned by Girafa.

It was a classic shakedown. Girafa explained that they were preparing a lawsuit in the amount of $5 million but there was an out. We could avoid litigation if we licensed their software. The price? $5 million.

MyBlogLog thumbnails

You can imagine our surprise. Todd has tied together a couple of open-sourced software packages to create a screenshot process that ran on an old PC that literally sat under one of the engineer’s desks. The software was a bit temperamental and would sometimes fall over. We would get complaints for users that their website needed a refreshed screenshot which was our queue to go over and restart the screenshotter machine. It happened enough times to be a minor pain in the neck so we were open to licensed software or web service that was a bit more stable but $5 million was certainly more than we were willing to pay.

Yahoo legal was on the case and they told us that not only MyBlogLog but also delicious and Yahoo Bookmarks were named in the suit along with Alexa (part of Amazon) as well as a few other companies were also part of the suit. All during the course of the lawsuit, we had to have several meetings with the legal team at Yahoo (who were great) but also had to keep copies of all our correspondence and take care when we eventually moved the machine to a Yahoo data center to ensure the screenshot software was not integrated with any other parts of the Yahoo infrastructure to ensure that other divisions in Yahoo couldn’t get ensnared in the lawsuit. At some point Todd had to give a deposition and he even spent an afternoon over at the Internet Archive looking through the Wayback Machine archives to locate old screenshots from HotWired which we remembered used to take screenshots of sites back in late-90’s.

I left Yahoo before I heard what happened so, after listening to the This American Life podcast, I poked around to find out the rest of the story.

I am not a lawyer but from what I can tell, the lawsuit was initially thrown out in late-2008 but documents and paperwork continued to be filed (in hopes of continuing the suit?) all the way into late 2010.Thge Girafa nonsense tied up the courts for a solid three years. Think of the untold wasted hours!

In June of 2011, Google swooped in and purchased Girafa’s patents, supposedly as insurance against any action against Google’s use of thumbnails in their instant preview search results feature. Let’s hope the Girafa patent will stay dormant where it is and not be unleashed again by its new owners to cause a new round of havoc and hand-wringing.

If you go to girafa.com there’s a sad notice that the service has been discontinued. A sad final chapter for a service that caused nothing but pain and consternation.