One traditional way companies protect themselves against patent claims is by holding patents of their own. Patent holders are less likely to assert claims against a company if doing so would expose them to costly countersuits. That's the main reason why Google bid $900 million for the patent portfolio of bankrupt telecom giant Nortel in April.
But the threat of countersuits only works if the patent holder makes a product that also infringes your own patents. Lodsys doesn't make anything. Its sole revenue source is a set of four patents it purchased from one Dan Abelow, a self-styled inventor with no engineering experience. As Lodsys puts it, "Like an app developer writing software (a copyright), [Abelow] created intellectual property (in this case, a patent)." In other words, the patents are the product.
And what a product they are. Lodsys describes Abelow's patents as "visualized/created metaphors" -- and if that sounds like mumbo-jumbo to you, you should read the text of the patents themselves. To call them "broad" is an understatement. Each begins with the following boilerplate:
The growing speed of product development (with shorter time to market, rapid addition of new product features, and transformation of many products due to technological change) makes the ability to measure and deal with complexity considerably more difficulty [sic]. The rate of product evolution in many product categories has become faster than ever, so measurement methods must evolve to keep pace with the speed and scope of business decision-making.
Abelow then goes on for around 100 single-spaced pages and 50,000 words of text for each patent, touching on topics as diverse as product testing, online surveys, field-programmable logic devices, bar code readers, automated teller machines, product design and management, TVs and VCRs, modems, communications media, market research, voice interfaces, pen-based computing, servers, and on and on.
In fact, in February Lodsys asserted the very same patents against a group of printer manufacturers -- including Brother, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark, and others -- claiming that the printers' network-enabled management features were infringing. It seems virtually any function that facilitates communication between a device and its manufacturer could be subject to these patents; therefore, it's unlikely that any algorithm that smartphone vendors could have implemented for in-app purchases could have avoided the same fate. Blame Lodsys, not Apple.