Audrey Spangenberg sees her story as a straightforward David versus Goliath saga: as CEO of a small, struggling software business, she resents search giant Google selling ads that are triggered by users typing her company's trademarked name, Firepond, into the Google search box.
"I was sitting around this one day, and I thought, I'm going to Google 'Firepond' and see what comes up," said Spangenberg. "I was blown away to see that one of the competitors was using my trademark as an ad word."
After consulting a team of lawyers, she filed a lawsuit against Google on Monday that she hopes will become the first class action trademark claim against the company's practice of selling ads on trademarked keywords, a practice she hopes to stop.
Spangenberg says her suit isn't about money, it's about respect for intellectual property. "I'm very troubled at Google's continued disregard for the trademarks of others," she says. "Unless we're a huge company like Google, our property isn't valuable?" That’s how Spangenberg framed the issue in an interview with IP Law & Business on Friday—and the way she framed it yesterday, when she told The New York Times that Google's policies made her "furious."
But that version misses the byzantine backstory to this suit: Spangenberg and her husband Erich already sit atop a sizable fortune, won through intellectual property litigation. Since 2004, the Spangenbergs have moved patents purchased from various sources—including Firepond—through a complex network of shell companies set up in the small town of Marshall, Texas. In the last five years, these companies have filed dozens of patent lawsuits against hundreds of companies, most of them in Marshall or neighboring towns in the Eastern District of Texas, a venue considered friendly to patent plaintiffs—the same venue for the new class-action trademark suit.