Apparently, a fellow by the name of Mitchell Prust has sued Apple and SoftLayer for infringement of patents in the area of online storage.

Prust’s patents discuss basic storage principles commonly associated today with Cloud Storage – with a plurality of storage servers and storage systems providing customers with access to ‘virtual storage areas’ for remote data file storage. Digging a little deeper into the patents, Prust also claims his invention extends beyond data storage and into the realm of remote processing – in which case the servers and storage within a ‘virtual storage area’ can be used to process client data stored within them to run complementary tasks such as compression, encryption/decryption, and data conversion. In the patents, Prust highlights a number of different means for moving data to a ‘virtual storage area’ including WebDAV, HTTP, SMB (Server Message Block) and FTP.

On the face of it, these patents are pretty broad. However, one thing I’ve learned is that the only really important thing about a patent is the claims – not the description, and certainly not the abstract – so I went to look at those. The three patents involved are 6714968, 6735623, and 6952724. The earliest, 968, seems the most general; 623 is essentially the same with a specific mention of an email interface, and 724 is essentially the same with a specific mention of WebDAV.

The first thing I notice is that all three (plus 20050278422 which has been filed but not issued) mention a “user assignable virtual storage area” in the all-important first claim. This is within my own technology area, and I still wouldn’t want to risk a ton of legal fees over a particular definition or distinction about what that does or does not cover. Does “assigned” refer to a permanent or transient kind of allocation? Is a directory a “virtual storage area” or does that term only apply to something more like a disk partition? Another element common to all three patents is the use of multiple interfaces to the networked storage, where one is fully integrated with the operating system (clearly meaning something like the UNIX VFS or Windows IFS layer) and the other is not.

It seems to me that making the “mkdir” command available to users would satisfy some definitions of “user assignable virtual storage area” while any system providing both NFS and FTP interfaces would match the multiple-interface criterion as well. Such systems have clearly existed since long before this patent was filed. Even with more restrictive definitions, the two necessary features were already so common that their combination was obvious enough to be unpatentable. That’s probably why the suit was filed in Patent Troll Central, and why the plaintiffs chose only two targets. They have to walk a thin line, between claims so narrow that they don’t apply to the case and claims so broad that the prior art comes pouring in. Some might say that the two ranges overlap, leaving no space in between, but Prust is obviously hoping that a sympathetic East Texas judge will see it differently.

Overall, even in that venue, I wouldn’t give the case much of a chance. The claims are not only broad but vague as well, making them particularly poor examples of the IP-lawyer’s black art. Don’t quit your day job, Mitch.