The Life is Good Co. accused a “patent troll” of bad faith threats when it tried to assert dubious patent infringement claims over the lifestyle brand’s use of search engine technology on its own website.
In a lawsuit filed in a Massachusetts district court, the Boston lifestyle brand and its co-plaintiff, e-commerce search engine Constructor, are seeking to recover damages incurred as a result of alleged unfair and deceptive business practices from Hitel Technologies LLC. Constructor provides its proprietary software to Life is Good to improve product search results for customers on the brand’s website.
Both plaintiffs dismissed the infringement allegations as baseless and inaccurate.
Hitel Technologies is a patent assertion entity, aka patent troll, founded in 2020 that has filed 30 lawsuits against Nike, Gap, Levi Strauss & Co., Gucci, J.Crew, Bonobos, Everlane and others. All of the lawsuits involve just one patent—U.S. Patent No. 7,689,617, or known as the ‘617 patent—focused on “Dynamic Learning Navigation Systems.”
The patent covers a method in which a user types in an unknown keyword in a search bar. The patented technology would recognize that the word is unknown, and present at least one alternative based on user input. The technology would then learn one or more associations between the unknown word and new keywords until a direct relationship between the words was formed.
Despite Hitel’s assertions of the ‘617 patent across the 30 cases, no court has determined that any of the defendants infringed on the patent.
Hitel notified Life is Good that it was allegedly infringing on its patent on June 29, and demanded that the apparel seller pay to license the patent. Life is Good does not make or sell any products that use the ’617 patent.
Life is Good said in the complaint that Hitel’s technology would never be able to replicate the search capabilities provided by Constructor’s proprietary site search software, and that its own e-commerce site had no need for the alleged invention of the ‘617 patent, which uses a fundamentally different and simplistic approach.
“Indeed, the alleged invention of the ‘617 patent would reduce or disrupt the performance of Constructor’s search technology in LIG’s Website,” the suit said. “For example, the ‘617 patent allegedly creates associations between ‘unknown words’ and one or more ‘keywords’ after a specific series of steps including user navigation and an additional user input. Such a system would create unpredictable and undesirable results for ‘unknown’ search terms based on potentially arbitrary user navigations or selections.”
Life is Good gave examples as to why the patent infringement allegations were baseless. In one instance, Hitel alleges that the Life is Good website purportedly identifies a search term “tablewaer” as an “unknown word” after it is allegedly entered by a user in a search field. As alleged support for this claim, Hitel provided screenshots purporting to show a search for “tablewaer” on the lifestyle brand’s website that produces 19 products as search results.
But under Hitel’s allegations, the products provided as results in the screenshots show that the term “tablewaer” was recognized by the site as a misspelling of “tableware,” which means it wasn’t a considered an unknown word by the Constructor technology. The three products shared in the screenshot, seen below, include an “It’s Pie Day” T-shirt, and two “USA Home Plate” T-shirts, both of which includes keywords like “pie” and “plate’ related to the search term “tableware.”
“The mere fact that a search term is misspelled does not mean that the misspelled term is unknown to the system. LIG’s Website uses sophisticated spelling correction software that automatically corrects spelling errors and/or recognizes common misspellings,” the suit said. “Such spelling correction techniques have nothing to do with the alleged invention of the ’617 patent, because they do not involve using ‘navigation’ by a user to learn the meaning of misspelled search terms. Indeed, techniques for correcting spelling errors were known long before the ’617 patent, and the ’617 patent does not claim to have invented spelling correction software.”
And while Hitel alleges that the Life is Good website learns one or more associations between the alleged unknown word “tablewaer” and a keyword “upon previous selection by users on the website,” the company does not identify any keyword or previous selection that causes the brand’s website to associate the misspelling “tablewaer” with them.
In fact, the plaintiffs said that a prior search and selection does not have an impact on the products offered.
“If Hitel’s infringement allegations were correct, then the user’s actions of searching ‘tablewaer’ and then selecting a ‘USA Home Plate’ T-shirt would cause the LIG Website to associate ‘tablewaer’ with a keyword from the ‘USA Home Plate’ T-shirt product page—thereby causing the system to produce the ‘USA Home Plate’ t-shirt as a result for the search term ‘tablewaer’ in subsequent searches,” they argued.
A later Aug. 21, 2022 user search for “tablewaer” displayed in the complaint illustrated that the keyword did not produce the “USA Home Plate” T-shirt as a result—even after the “USA Home Plate” was allegedly selected by a user searching for “tablewaer” and even though the “USA Home Plate” t-shirt was still available on the site. Instead, the search of “tablewaer” on the Life is Good site search produced 12 results for tableware products, seen below.
Life is Good and Constructor also shared examples of Hitel’s other lawsuits, illustrating that its complaints against Levi Strauss & Co., Giorgio Armani, Nike and Gucci were all nearly identical allegations, all substituting one word for “tablewaer.”
These “cut-and-paste” allegations, the plaintiffs said, further illustrated that Hitel’s business practice is to make generic allegations of infringement to unfairly extract settlement payments from companies based on the threat of expensive litigation.
The complaint also pointed out that Hitel’s purported “principal place of business” is just a mailbox at a store called Postal Shoppe in Plano, Texas, with no functioning business in the area. The company’s sole managing member, identified as Annette Rathgeber, also works for a company named IP Edge LLC, which purports to be Hitel’s licensing advisor. In 2021, IP Edge-related entities reportedly filed patent infringement suits against more than 600 defendants.