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Keen wins patent for phone-advice system

The advice company receives a patent for its system of connecting advice-seekers with self-proclaimed experts via the telephone.

    Advice company Keen received a patent for its system of connecting advice-seekers with self-proclaimed experts via the telephone.

    The Patent and Trademark Office issued the patent Tuesday to the San Francisco-based company, which also offers advice through its Web site, Keen.com.

    "This is a defensive maneuver to protect the brand created around Keen," Chief Executive Karl Jacob said.

    But Keen could have a hard time defending the patent, said Robert Sachs, a patent attorney with Fenwick & West in San Francisco. The patent could be designed around and could be challenged in court for lacking sufficient description, Sachs said.

    "The patent is sufficiently broad to cover their business, but not broad enough to cover all other comers, Sachs said. "They'll have some serious problems enforcing it."

    Keen is not the first e-commerce or Internet company to get approval for a patent. E-tail leader Amazon.com received patents for its recommendation service, its affiliates program and its 1-Click ordering feature. Other Internet companies with patents include Priceline.com, Coolsavings and DoubleClick.

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    The Keen patent is typical of those secured by other Internet business, said Jeffrey Neuburger, a patent lawyer with Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner in New York.

    "This is one of a stream of patents issued to Internet companies that are trying to protect themselves in a vulnerable marketplace," Neuburger said.

    These Internet patents have often been controversial and have frequently been challenged in courts. Amazon, for instance, has been embroiled in both a legal and a public relations battle over its 1-Click service.

    Amazon-rival Barnes&Noble.com, which Amazon sued in late 1999 accusing it of infringing on the 1-Click feature, persuaded an appeals court in February to overturn an injunction that prevented it from offering a similar service. Meanwhile, BountyQuest, a group partially funded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, handed out cash awards to people who submitted evidence that 1-Click was an obvious or derivative innovation that did not deserve patent protection.

    Meanwhile, Priceline and Coolsavings have settled several lawsuits they filed to defend their patents.

    Keen currently has no plans to defend its newly won patent, Jacob said. "Our goal is not to go out there and get suit happy," he said.

    The patent, which Keen applied for originally in March 1999, covers the company's method of connecting consumers and experts and the database system it uses to make those connections. The patent also covers the computer code needed to connect advice givers and experts.