The timeline of the meeting industry's technical evolution is central to the patent claims of Software Management Inc., a Pittsburgh-based meeting technology provider that has filed a patent application claiming the invention of 158 different meeting-related online processes. If a particular process was in public use more than a year before the SMI patent filing on December 30, 1998, then SMI's claim for that process is invalid.

The American Society of Association Executives has put out a call asking members to share records, anonymously if preferred, demonstrating the early use or sale of online registration services or other Internet-based meeting management systems. Other meetings industry associations began addressing the SMI patent case late this summer after SMI sent royalty invoices to 25 potential violators of its patentable claims. (See box, page 17.)

Check Your Mail

SMI President Paul Franke says that while there are perhaps 2,500 potential patent violators, after the first 25 letters, the company “halted [mailing the letters] to review the way the industry would react and to answer questions.”

While SMI has no right to royalty payments until it actually holds a patent, the firm has to notify patent infringers it will be entitled to royalties that are retroactive from the date its patents are granted (some day in the future) to the application date (August 2001).

Industry experts recommend that planners document the history of their Web-based convention practices and examine their contracts with Web service providers. “Check to see if your agreements with these other parties contain provisions which would cover SMI's infringement claims.…Also, what does your insurance provide?” reads the Meeting Professionals International white paper, written by Jonathan T. Howe of Howe & Hutton Ltd., Chicago.

Organizations that have received written notice could pay the invoice — reportedly upwards of $1,000 per event — but “the requests for payment are speculative if and until, if ever, the patent issues. Should no patent issue or should a patent issue in a substantially altered form than the published application, this money will have been paid in vain,” states the MPI white paper. On the other hand, it also says, if the patent is granted in basically identical form to the application, recipients of the SMI letter could potentially face “litigation of the most expensive variety.”

SMI Patent Resources

For more on the patent and industry reactions: