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Apple, HP targeted in patent lawsuit over web stores

A little-known company is suing Apple and Hewlett-Packard for creating head-to-toe custom computer ordering systems that allegedly resemble concepts patented in the early days of Internet sales.

Filed this week by Clear With Computers, a company that actually operates out of Marshall, Texas rather than simply using it as a staging point for patent disputes, the lawsuit claims that Apple's online store, its main website, and their relevant sales and supply systems infringe on some aspects of patents granted in March 1997 and November 1994 for computer-based techniques to propose and complete sales of multiple parts in a single order.

The 1997 patent in particular lets users sign in to an electronic system and build a list of products or parts from a form, including text or visual descriptions of each option and a system to handle the payment for the combined results. The database at the heart of the system would also let the host company update information for each product without having to rebuild the entire system.

CWC's description at least superficially resembles the custom configuration approaches used by Apple and HP to sell their respective computer lines. Both allow users to choose different performance and bundle options for systems before they place an order, and are built on software platforms that let either PC builder easily add or remove new items to the store on the fly as well as change prices or options.

The method described in the patent nonetheless shows signs of its age and doesn't suggest an actual online transaction: a company would instead print out the custom offer and try to sell the product in person. CWC's complaint also doesn't address examples of prior art from other companies, such as Dell's beginning direct online PC sales in 1996.

Even so, the plaintiff is confident that it can freeze out both of the computer sales giants with a permanent injunction on their services and a request that Apple and HP pay "enhanced" damages for what's claimed as deliberate infringement. CWC supports its argument by pointing to a successful defense of its two patents in a dispute with office supply retailer Staples.

Neither Apple nor HP has commented on the new lawsuit.