GeoTag is using a 1999 patent for organizing geographic information online to sue business and job search engines. Photo credit: Flickr user Jamiesrabbits

Searching for a store or a job in your area?  GeoTag, a patent-holding company, says they invented that. Canon is its latest target, but GeoTag, Inc. has already sued about 400 companies in 20 lawsuits — and they are actively searching the web for more sites to sue.

“We’ve got a lot of people here looking at websites,” said GeoTag attorney Christopher Joe of Buether Joe & Carpenter, LLC.  “It’s really not that difficult.”

Any website with a business or “store locator” search function, that organizes its results geographically,  is fair game to GeoTag.  Asked if there’s any way to search for businesses online without violating GeoTag’s patent rights, Joe answered: “There is a way–it’s the way Yahoo allowed you to search for things back in 1992.”

Joe said they also look for job search engines that organize results by proximity to a particular city or zip code.

GeoTag filed its most recent lawsuit against Canon on January 26, stating that search functions on the “Where to Buy” and “Job Opportunities” pages of Canon’s website infringe on their patent.

Since forming in 2010, GeoTag has sued the who’s who of fashion, including Giorgio Armani, Christian Dior, Oscar De La Renta, Gucci and Rolex. It has also sued obscure businesses and big chain stores alike, the latter including Nordstrom, Best Buy and Target.  Other notable defendants include Yellow Book, Intelius and Yelp.

Based on Frisco, TX, GeoTag bases all of its cases on one patent, number 5,930,474, titled “Internet organizer for accessing geographically and topically based information.”  The suits are filed in the Eastern District of Texas, Marshall Division, a popular venue for patent litigation. The suits all claim that the search systems on those websites infringe GeoTag’s patent.

So far, none of the company’s 20 cases has closed or gone to trial.  Attorney Joe declined to say how many licensees the company has garnered through litigation.

In March of last year, Microsoft and Google, usually fierce rivals, filed an unprecedented joint lawsuit against GeoTag, seeking to knock out the company’s patent. The complaint said that GeoTag’s suits “have placed a cloud on the Plaintiffs’ web mapping services” because many of the defendants are their customers. That lawsuit is still pending.

The company’s CEO, John Veenstra, is one of three inventors listed on the patent. He declined to comment for this story, saying “I can’t comment–we’re in the middle of litigation.”

Veenstra founded a Dallas community search engine called Zland.com in 1995, according to his personal website, where he writes that he “lead [sic] the team that created the first tools for database publishing into HTML pages,” as well as “the first online industry portal, school site, community site and yellow page site.”  The ‘474 patent was filed in 1996 and issued in 1999 to Z Land LLC.

Since then, the patent has moved through many hands, including a company called GeoMas, which is also associated with Veenstra. In 2006, GeoMas filed the first suit using the patent in 2006 against a Verizon spin-off over the search engine on superpages.com.

Zland.com, owned by GeoTag, is still online today as a Dallas search site, although it sometimes displays broken images and missing ad spots. The main phone number for GeoTag, listed on its website, is disconnected.  GeoTag’s SEC filings from an attempt to go public in 2010 — it withdrew its stock offering in November that year — state that the company had no revenue but expected earnings from litigating its patent.

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