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Here come the 'Twitter, we did it first' lawsuits

A service that makes emergency-management messaging software has sued Twitter over alleged patent infringement. The legal documents, however, are pretty vague.

One of the issues when you create something simple, easy to use, and phenomenally popular is that there will invariably be some folks who come along and say that it was their idea first.

Naturally, that's started to happen to Twitter. Earlier this month, a patent lawsuit was filed against Twitter on behalf of a Texas-based company called TechRadium, which has a patent to "allow a group administrator or 'message author' to originate a single message that will be delivered simultaneously via multiple communication gateways to members of a group of 'message subscribers' over e-mail, text message, or another platform.

More specifically, TechRadium's technology has been applied to a product called Iris, which is designed to be able to send out mass messages for emergency response purposes. The lawsuit claims that Twitter's service amounts to "offering for sale or use, or selling or using these products without license or authority from TechRadium."

TechRadium claims it has "suffered actual and consequential damages," the suit reads, but isn't very specific beyond that. "Plaintiff does not yet know the full extent of such infringement and such extent cannot be ascertained except by discovery and special accounting." As for damages, the company seeks "an amount not less than the maximum amount permitted by law."

I'm not really sure what TechRadium's aim is here, because, as Wired put it, similarities between the two companies seem like "a ridiculously obvious use of modern technology." Remember when "microblogging" wasn't just Twitter, but also Jaiku (sold to Google and effectively shelved), Pownce (sold to Six Apart and shut down), and Plurk (still around, but we haven't heard a peep out of it recently)? There have also been, in the mass-messaging space, Yahoo's ill-fated Mixd, Google's ill-fated Dodgeball, and Microsoft's still-experimental Vine--which also has an emergency-management angle.

And beyond that, the concept of short, pithy messages is nothing new. (Telegraphs? The short-form diaries of John Quincy Adams? Those funny banners with short messages on them that you sometimes see flying behind propeller planes at the beach?) My guess is that TechRadium is hoping the language in its patent is vague enough so that, at the least, it can get some recognition or (less likely) compensation.

So it's no shock that Twitter is going to get slapped with repeated accusations of "hey, we got there first." The same thing happened to Facebook, a far more complicated and less open-ended service, when the founders of ConnectU, a failed social network that had originated around the same time at Harvard University, claimed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had pilfered their business plan in creating his now-billion-dollar company.

And, as Wired points out, Twitter is well aware of this: leaked internal documents say that "We will be sued for patent infringement, repeatedly and often." Earlier this summer, the company hired its first general counsel right out of Google's legal ranks.

As for TechRadium, unless they can basically prove that Twitter's founders snuck into their offices and went hogwild with a photocopier and some stolen documents, this is one case that probably won't get off the ground.