--Aesop DuBaud (ancient Canadian fabulist)
Remember the famed feud between Abigail van Buren and Ann Landers, the twin sisters who wrote competing advice columns? It struck some as ironic that two women incapable of resolving their own familial rift were telling the rest of us what to do with our personal lives. And yet, these two grudge-bearing women reigned supreme over the 20th century advice industry.
Proving once again that historical events happen offline as tragedy and online as farce, the Web's two premier advice sites are starting the new year locked in a nasty legal battle over patent claims that make the Dear Abby-Ann Landers spat look like a sisterly tea party.
Keen, a San Francisco-based online advice marketplace launched in 1999, fired the first shot late last year with a patent lawsuit seeking an injunction against New York-based competitor LiveAdvice, formerly known as InfoRocket.com.
With the suit, filed in the New York Southern District Court, Keen is attempting to enforce a patent it received in April that covers its system of hooking up advice seekers and advice dispensers over the phone through a Web site.
The defendant, on the advice of its attorneys, fired back with a countersuit, waving a considerably earlier 1998 patent that it licensed when it started up in 2000.
Keen executives, representatives, attorneys and advisers did not return the Rumor Mill's calls. LiveAdvice CEO Beth Haggerty declined to discuss the lawsuit, but she did acknowledge that "both companies have patent positions, and both are claiming infringement against each other."
Haggerty made no bones about whom she considers the aggressor in the patent scuffle.
"Keen is the one pursuing this," she said.
Unlike the advice column twins, Keen and LiveAdvice make a lopsided pair of combatants.
Keen, employing about 90 people after layoffs last year, is the older and more well-heeled of the two, funded to the tune of $109 million by the likes of Amerindo Investment Advisors, Benchmark Capital, Rumor Mill publisher CNET Networks, Deutsche Banc Alex Brown, eBay, Inktomi, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft and Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures.
LiveAdvice is the scrappy upstart, employing a staff of 31 (minus 19 let go early last year). Investors including Carlyle Venture Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Prospect Street Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson Gotham, Garage.com and Axalon Ventures have chipped in a comparatively meager $28 million.
Haggerty says business is booming, with revenue leaping 35 percent month over month.
Still, analysts suggest that both companies are scrambling over each other toward the exit marked "acquisition" and using the patent stick to trip the other one.
"It almost always makes sense to try and protect your intellectual property, even if you are seeking to be acquired, because if you have defensible patents, that raises your value," said Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Ross Rubin.
Rubin doesn't see either company making a long-term go of it alone, noting that it seems some tricky problems stand between each company and a successful buyout exit.
"eBay would be a good target buyer," Rubin speculated. "But a significant part of Keen's revenues comes from adult content, and eBay has tread carefully there."
The Rumor Mill, being an innocent, family-oriented column, didn't know exactly what Rubin meant by "adult content." Did that mean sexually themed advice? Or phone sex?
"Both, but primarily the latter," Rubin replied. "That's the more objectionable part."
LiveAdvice has its share of adult content, the Rumor Mill blushed to discover. One Skinsider pointed out that the two sites have an overlap in their advice providers.
This Skinsider said rumors had long swirled around Keen that a majority of its revenue came from the sex industry. But our source called that a gross exaggeration and pegged the truer figure around 6 percent--and rising.
A casual glance at the listings on Keen and LiveAdvice suggests that at least some of their revenue comes from the shadowy realm of psychics, mediums and spiritual advisers.
Art is annoying
Speaking of shadowy realms, the Rumor Mill embarked on its latest foray into the cultural wilderness of the high-tech industry Thursday night with the gallery debut of Web site bad boy and First Amendment banner waver Annoy.com.
Annoy.com, which has made its case successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court defending its sexually explicit and politically provocative online postcards, faced a much tougher crowd at San Francisco's "First Thursday" night, when downtown art galleries open their doors to night owls and rumormongers.
Hanging on white gallery walls were giant enlargements of Annoy.com's signature brand of Photoshop montage: Osama bin Laden's face on the Statue of Liberty, holding up the head of President George W. Bush with Medusa hair; Timothy McVeigh crossed with Ronald McDonald; and JonBenet Ramsay, the Pope and Rudy Giuliani in various undignified poses.
"I don't know," said one dubious art lover who wandered into the Toomey-Tourell gallery. "I saw all these online, and I'm like, big deal. Rerun."
Annoy.com graphics may be merely annoying as freely available gifs, but the Rumor Mill found them downright obnoxious as 36-by-48-inch glossy prints on sale for as much as $1,400 apiece.
On the other hand, San Francisco city officials in attendance gave the show high marks.
"I'm a recent convert, and more so after seeing this show," said San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno. "It's an important show at a time like this because of the frightening, growing complacency with the current administration. And we need these kinds of visual statements to jar us from the status quo."
Annoy.com nouveau artiste Clinton Fein said the leap to art galleries from courtrooms was not as far as one might think.
"The art of law defines a legal landscape," Fein said. "That's a more artistic challenge to me than if I were slapping paint onto a canvas." Slap some paint onto my canvas. Send me your rumors.