NetZero sues Juno for patent infringement

In a move that may be the beginning of a series of legal challenges in the already ailing free Internet access business, Internet service provider NetZero Inc. on Tuesday filed suit against rival Juno Online Services Inc., alleging Juno's advertising and Web navigation window violates a NetZero patent. Juno promptly denied the allegation and charged that NetZero is infringing one of its patents.

NetZero, in Westlake Village, Calif., and Juno, based in New York, both offer free Internet access that includes a window, separate from the browser, with continuous advertising as well as Web navigation buttons. Users of the free services have to keep the window on their computer screens while using the Internet service.

In its suit against Juno, NetZero alleges Juno's window, The Juno Guide, is nearly identical to NetZero's ZeroPort window and violates a patent for which NetZero is the sole licensee, the company said in a statement Wednesday. NetZero seeks to stop Juno from using the technology and to collect damages for the alleged patent infringement.

The patent, U.S. Patent No. 6,157,946, describes a method for displaying messages or advertising in a window separate from the browser. It applies to the ad-delivery process used by "many of our competitors," NetZero said in its statement.

Juno denied it is infringing on the patent and said in a statement that NetZero is infringing one of Juno's patents, the subject of a suit Juno brought against NetZero on June 1. Juno sued NetZero and Qualcomm Inc. for infringing a patent on technology for displaying advertising and other content while a customer is not connected to the Internet, according to a statement on Juno's Web site.

The overall decline of Internet-related stocks and doubts about the value of an Internet-advertising-driven business model this year have brought tough times to the free Internet access business. Some providers, such as Freei Networks Inc., have folded. Others, such as Altavista Co. and Kmart Corp.'s BlueLight.com LLC, have modified their services.

BlueLight last week announced it is limiting free access to 25 hours per month and will introduce a new Internet access service, possibly by February. A source close to BlueLight earlier this month told IDG News Service that the service may require users to spend a certain amount of money on merchandise.

NetZero spokeswoman Allison Chesher on Wednesday said the company would not comment further on the suit.

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