Visto sues Microsoft over wireless e-mail patents

Visto Corp. has filed a lawsuit against Microsoft Corp., accusing it of improper use of patented Visto technologies in Microsoft’s software for accessing e-mail from phones and other wireless devices.

The action kicks off another legal battle in the wireless e-mail market. Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM) is currently defending a suit brought by NTP Inc., which says RIM used NTP technology patents illegally in RIM’s BlackBerry e-mail devices. Just yesterday, Visto said it had licensed those patents from NTP.

Visto’s suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, seeks unspecified monetary damages and a permanent injunction preventing Microsoft from shipping the software in question, Windows Mobile 5.0. Visto called the product “a blatant infringement on Visto’s patented technology.”

It also accused the software maker of routinely stealing technologies from smaller companies and settling subsequent court cases with hefty payments.

“It’s the obligation of this company to protect our ability to compete on a fair and level playing field,” said Brian Bogosian, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Visto, on a conference call following the company’s announcement.

Microsoft’s move into providing push e-mail software, which delivers e-mail instantaneously to mobile devices, infringes on patented technology developed by co-founder and current Senior Vice President of Intellectual Property Daniel Mendez, Bogosian said. Visto had not spoken with Microsoft about a licensing deal prior to filing the lawsuit, believing it is Microsoft’s responsibility to determine whether it is infringing upon another company’s intellectual property before it enters a particular market, he said.

Visto’s patents apparently do not extend to the concept of a wireless e-mail system patented by NTP. Visto took a license to those patents because it recognized the validity of the patents, and out of respect for intellectual property owners, Bogosian said.

He declined to cite how much Visto paid for the license, or how much of an equity stake NTP took in the company as a result of the deal, but characterized the total value as less than US$450 million. That is the same amount that RIM had agreed to pay NTP in a settlement earlier this year before that deal collapsed, setting up a possible injunction against the sale of RIM’s BlackBerry devices and service in the U.S.

Microsoft declined to comment beyond a brief statement distributed by its public relations agency, Waggener Edstrom Inc. “Until we have an opportunity to see and review this complaint, we’re not in a position to comment on it. In the meantime, however, let us underscore that Microsoft stands behind its products and respects intellectual property rights,” the statement read.

Visto’s software is used by carriers including Cingular Wireless LLC, Sprint Nextel Corp. and Vodafone Group PLC. Its lawsuit accuses Microsoft of infringing on three U.S. patents in particular. They are patent No. 6,085,192, titled “System And Method For Securely Synchronizing Multiple Copies Of A Workspace Element In A Network;” No. 6,708,221, “System And Method For Globally And Securely Accessing Unified Information In A Computer Network,” and No. 6,151,606, “System And Method For Using A Workspace Data Manager To Access, Manipulate And Synchronize Network Data.”

Patents can be viewed by searching the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site.

(Elizabeth Montalbano in San Francisco contributed to this report.)

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