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HP sued over Net kiosks

An Alabama inventor is taking the role of David in suing technology Goliath Hewlett-Packard for alleged patent infringement in Internet kiosks.

An Alabama inventor is taking the role of David in suing technology Goliath Hewlett-Packard (HWP) for alleged patent infringement in Internet kiosks.

Richard Mettke of Weaver, Alabama, filed the lawsuit in U.S. Federal District Court in that state against HP and its business partner, North Communications, which bills itself as an "end-to-end provider of everything from kiosk manufacturing and design to custom and off-the-shelf software solutions."

According to U.S. Patent No. 5,602,905, which was awarded to Mettke in February, an Internet kiosk is "a 'pay-as-you-use' communication terminal capable of interfacing with all major commercial online communications services (i.e., America Online, Prodigy, CompuServe, etc.). Users can receive a hard copy of any activity that they conduct from the terminal through the colocated printer. Payment of services will be made by credit card using a 'magnetic swipe' system included as part of the terminal system. Users will be charged for use of the system as well as normal telephone charges."

Many kiosks are free-standing units, such as those increasingly found in airports that let travelers send and receive email, browse the Web, or conduct other online business while waiting for flights.

Mettke filed the patent application for the Internet kiosk in January 1995. His attorney in the suit, Darin Duphorne of Houston law firm Tobor & Goldstein, said there are several small companies using the kiosks, but Mettke is going after Hewlett-Packard first.

"Most of the smaller companies have 10 or 20 structures in place," he noted. "Suing a large company first offers the exposure and sets an example for the smaller ones." He said winning the suit against HP also would afford Mettke the financial backing to go after the many smaller firms using the technology.

Duphorne said Mettke approached the PC equipment maker about a year before the company introduced its kiosk, offering it his technology. "[HP] told our client they weren't interested, that it didn't fit their business model," he added. "A year later, they introduced their own entry. Clearly, they were interested. It did fit their business model--they just didn't want to pay the licensing fee."

A spokeswoman for Hewlett-Packard confirmed that the company has been served with the suit but declined to comment further.

Duphorne conceded that Mettke is not well-known and perhaps didn't have enough credibility or clout to provide technology for the likes of HP. However, since Mettke does hold the patent, the attorney said Mettke is seeking what he sees as a "reasonable royalty."

"If the companies are successful at [implementing the kiosks], it could be a significant revenue maker for them," he added.

The damages sought in the suit have not been determined but will be "in the seven figures," based on how much revenue the company has gained and stands to gain in the future by using the kiosk technology, according to Duphorne.