A corporation based outside of Philadelphia is suing a Pennsylvania Realtor for allegedly infringing a patent the company holds for using a computer mapping system to locate available real estate properties for sale.
A corporation, Real Estate Alliance Ltd., on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia against RE/MAX Action Realty agent Diane Sarkisian, accusing her of illegally using its patented property locator method.
Real Estate Alliance Ltd., or REAL for short, is asking for unspecified royalties and court costs, according to Lawrence Husick, an attorney for REAL. The company was formed to license the patent named in the suit, Husick said.
Sarkisian did not return phone calls seeking comment on the claims.
The case could have broad implications for the real estate industry as the method of using computer-mapping programs to search available homes on real estate Web sites has become more common. Attorneys for the patent holder noted that real estate agents throughout the country may be infringing the patent and subject to legal action.
The patent, dubbed “Real Estate Search and Location System and Method,” was filed in 1989 and granted in 1991, long before commercial use of the Internet became common. According to U.S. patent No. 5,032,989, Windermere, Fla.-based systems engineer Mark Tornetta invented an interactive mapping system used to find homes for sale similar to the way a number of real estate Web sites today allow users to search for properties.
Tornetta is a shareholder of REAL, according to the complaint.
The patent claims a method “for locating available real estate properties for sale, lease or rental using a database of available properties at a central location and remote stations which use a graphic interface,” according to a document at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
REAL in June mailed letters to several real estate agents in the Philadelphia area whom they say are infringing the patent. The letters offered agents the chance to license the technology for a one-time fee of $10,000 if they applied before July 1, 2005, and included a copy of the infringement lawsuit that would be filed if they chose not to obtain a license.
“We’re not interested in damaging anyone’s business or reducing the use of mapping in the industry,” Husick said. “We just want to be compensated as the law allows.”
The attorney wouldn’t note specifically who had received the letters, but said several had been sent. As of Tuesday, Husick said, only one lawsuit has been filed, which names Sarkisian.
“Having written to her nearly six weeks ago, she elected to ignore the offer of license so therefore we felt it was opportune to begin the discussion this way,” said Husick, addressing why the individual agent was named.
The original license offer had been extended two weeks from the July 1 deadline, he said.
REAL has not received any applications from agents to license the patent, Husick said. “We are hopeful we will not have to (file additional lawsuits), but realistically we believe that’s a possibility,” he said.
The complaint states that TReND Multiple Listing Service of Philadelphia provides agent members a computer system enabling them to locate available real estate properties by starting with a broad geographic map and zooming in to smaller areas.
TReND has not been named a defendant in the lawsuit, and REAL said in a statement it will not sue the multiple listing service. “We intend to pursue those who are profiting by using our patented invention without a license,” said Andrew Rooke, president of REAL.
TReND in a statement today said it believes the lawsuit is without merit and intends to “vigorously defend any claims that use of the TReND MLS system infringes the REAL patent.” The MLS has retained intellectual property law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary.
The infringement lawsuit is a second attempt for Tornetta. In 1998, he sued two leaders among national home listing Web sites, Moore USA’s Cyberhomes and Microsoft’s HomeAdvisor, claiming both infringed upon and deliberately ignored his patented method for finding homes via computer.
At the time the suits were filed, both companies denied Tornetta’s claims and said they intended to mount a vigorous defense.
Tornetta eventually dropped the suits because Microsoft and Cyberhomes each had discontinued the services that allegedly infringed the patent, according to Husick.
Husick noted the patent, which expires in 2008, does not claim “the mere providing of interactive zoomable maps… it is the specific set of steps in the claim that applies the mapping technology to the location of available real estate.”
According to USPTO records, the patent claims “A method using a computer for locating available real estate properties comprising the steps of:
- creating a database of the available real estate properties;
- displaying a map of a desired geographic area;
- selecting a first area having boundaries within the geographic area;
- zooming in on the first area of the displayed map to about the boundaries of the first area to display a higher level of detail than the displayed map;
- displaying the zoomed first area;
- selecting a second area having boundaries within the zoomed first area;
- displaying the second area and a plurality of points within the second area, each point representing the appropriate geographic location of an available real estate property; and
- identifying available real estate properties within the database which area located within the second area.”
The patent also claims the method for printing reports, providing additional property features, the use of a “pointing device” – i.e., a computer mouse – and selecting properties by certain features.
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