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Online marketer gains second "profiling" patent

Be Free wins a second patent covering certain methods of profiling consumer purchasing preferences.

Online marketer Be Free has been granted a second patent covering certain methods of profiling consumer purchasing preferences, the company announced today.

In a statement, the company said U.S. Patent No. 5,991,735--titled "Computer Program Apparatus for Determining Behavioral Profiles of a Computer User"--extends the coverage of the company's existing patent by including anonymous profiling.

Be Free's growing patent portfolio appears to put it on a collision course with competitors such as DoubleClick and Engage, which also have filed for patents on online marketing methods. A DoubleClick spokeswoman refused to comment on the Be Free patent. Engage could not immediately be reached for comment.

A Be Free executive declined to comment on the company's plans to license the technology or to speculate on potential infringers. "We are still evaluating options for leveraging the patents," Tom Gerace, Be Free co-founder and executive vice president of business development, said in an interview.

But Gerace said he believes the patent is very broad. "This goes beyond protecting anonymous profiles" to cover business methods for any "passive creation of viewer profiles," he said.

In a controversial practice, numerous e-commerce companies have patented elements of their business plans that arguably have little to do with technology. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last year issued at least 10 so-called business method patents--a new category that has been upheld by a federal appeals court.

The foremost example is Priceline.com's patent on its "name-your-own-price" business model, which lets consumers say how much they'll pay for a specific airline ticket on a specific day. In October, the company sued Microsoft for patent infringement over its Expedia travel service, which uses a similar pricing model.

It's still unclear how much firepower the new patents will provide for Internet start-ups, however, which must run the gantlet of the courts to see their claims stick.