by By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq. | November 01, 2009

In 2001, Pittsburgh-based Software Management Inc. applied for a sweeping patent for online registration services and methods of organizing and operating virtual trade shows. The application also extended to online registration activities for physical (vs. virtual) trade shows conducted live at convention centers and other facilities. In other words, as I wrote in 2005, all aspects of meeting planning in conjunction with the use of the Internet would be covered by the patent.

After several years and the filing of a continuation to keep the 2001 application pending, the Patent Office finally issued a notice in May accepting SMI's patent, based on amendments the company had made. The notice of allowance was issued on May 19, 2009, and the patent itself was issued on Sept. 15.

All enforceable rights come into play now that the patent officially has been issued, so SMI can go back to April 2001 to make claims against alleged infringements. At the time of the original filing, SMI sent out letters claiming infringement of its patent-pending intellectual property and asked online users for $1,250 or more in payment per event; the company now can try to get that money paid.

Brass Tacks 
Technology providers in the industry might have forgotten about this filing. They'll be surprised to learn that this broad-based patent protects as a monopoly for SMI "a method and system for conducting multiple Internet-based convention, event, conferences, trade shows and meetings (‘conventions')." It further covers processes for displaying exhibit booth data, the way the website releases stored database information, and an "array of convention activity simulated with the program instructions and the databases."

In addition, the patented system protects the process of creating a "virtual convention venue" and asserts that the system "supports and augments a convention being held in a physical or venue-based center," such as a convention center.

Will It Stick?
The question of the validity of any patent is always an open issue once it is granted. For instance, once notified about infringing on the rights of the holder, a defendant might charge that the Patent Office acted irresponsibly in issuing the patent, especially since so many people were using similar systems already at the time when the original application was filed.

U.S. patent law requires that an invention be nonobvious, novel and useful. And whether or not an invention is obvious or novel, the Patent Office will look at "prior art" in the field -- the body of public knowledge that predates the invention -- during the process of considering possible patent infringements.

The real concern in this case will be the impact of the patent on any use of the web to conduct or present online meetings, if and when SMI decides to pursue alleged infringers.

Anyone facing an alleged infringement claim should consult with competent legal counsel before responding or taking any other action. When someone has been notified that his acts will continue to infringe on the patent, the violator could be liable for treble damages.

In conversations I have had, what might transpire is an open issue.

As to what a planner can do in the meantime: Include a warranty in your technology-supplier agreement that the product provided does not infringe on anyone else's intellectual property. Also include an indemnification clause to make sure both the vendor and the user are insured against possible infringement claims by a third party such as SMI.