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Is It Lawful to Use Twitter for Emergency Messages?

We already know what the law has to say about shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. But can you shout "fire" on a crowded Twitter? TechRadium, a Texas-based emergency alert provider, says no. As The National Law Journal reports, TechRadium is suing Twitter for alleged patent infringement for allowing municipalities, companies and government agencies to use its site as an emergency notification system.

TechRadium claims that Twitter's "core functionality" falls within the range of technology covered by TechRadium's patents. When organizations tweet about road closures, fires or bad weather, the company claims its patent rights are being violated. And that's happening more frequently, as municipalities and large corporations are using Twitter to alert the public about fires, hurricanes, road closures and other emergencies.

One of the patent lawyers quoted in the story picked up on an inconsistency in the lawsuit that had me puzzled. E. Leonard Rubin, an intellectual property attorney at Chicago's Querrey & Harrow, asked:

"Why is the use of Twitter's function in a normal way not infringing on TechRadium's patents, but it is called infringing when it's used as an emergency notification system?"

"The TechRadium patents are not labeled as for "emergency notification systems," Rubin said. "An issued patent may have a presumption of validity, but all that means is that an accused infringer has to show why it is invalid, and that's happened many times."

But TechRadium has been aggressive in asserting its patent rights. In June, the company settled a similar lawsuit with Blackboard Inc., an online educational company that also had a system in place enabling school officials to alert parents about school closings or other emergency information. The settlement agreement calls for the companies to cross-license their patents so that both can use the technology.

Presumably, Twitter will fight harder than Blackboard, given that digital notification is the core of Twitter's business, whereas for Blackboard it was an ancillary service. Moreover, there's a greater public issue at stake. After all, if Twitter shuts down, how will Oprah and I know if the roads are shut down?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on August 11, 2009 at 02:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)


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