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Keypoint Intelligence

Will Patent Trolls Kill the QR Code?

COVID popularized them, but will this take them out?

Oct 18, 2023 8:00:00 PM


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Quick response (QR) codes were invented in 1994, but the public didn’t truly embrace the concept until the COVID-19 pandemic when they suddenly appeared on everything from signage to menus, merchandise, and direct mailings. QR codes have become a critical link between print and digital communications, enabling marketers to direct consumers to websites to further personalize, direct, and track their customer experience. In other words, QR codes are the lynchpin tying direct mail to the digital universe.


What if they were to go away? It would devastate direct mailing and, by association, much of the production digital printing industry. QR codes, or rather the companies that use them, are under attack.



The Reasoning Behind the Possibility

Search online, and you’ll find various law firms blogging about how companies should reconsider using QR codes and other technologies such as virtual reality (VR). This advice is all due to a patent troll company named Symbology Innovations, LLC that has filed hundreds of lawsuits and mailed (probably) thousands of letters threatening lawsuits to small companies and individuals unless they pay tens of thousands of dollars in license fees to use QR codes. Symbology Innovations, LLC has filed lawsuits against companies such as Yves Saint Laurent America, Walgreen, Michaels Briggs & Stratton, Keruig, Dr. Pepper, Foot Locker, Lego, Merck & Co., ADT, AT&T, Auntie Anne’s, NETGEAR, Pioneer, Bank of America, Citigroup, SunTrust Banks, General Mills, Unilever, JC Penney, Ralph Lauren, Aetna, State Farm, Jimmy John’s, and others. Docket Alarm data even determined that, beginning in 2019, Symbology Innovations is now the second most prolific patent plaintiff.


These lawsuits seek to enforce Symbology’s “752, 369, 773, and 190 patents,” which cover any process that images, converts, and directs to a remote server. Please note that this is a high-level description and that we are not lawyers; however, Symbology claims its patents cover the primary use of QR codes, barcodes, and VR from smartphone imaging. For example, Symbology sued Wine Country Gift Baskets for violating its “752 patent” by placing static QR codes on their product catalogs that routed customers to their website.


Larger companies will either fight or settle these lawsuits. Still, Symbology’s primary targets are small businesses and individuals they intimidate with suits, hoping to pick up some easy cash. The company will target a restaurant, author, or other entity that has placed a QR code on a menu, sign, CD cover, or book with a letter claiming those in question are violating its patents accompanied by the threat of a lawsuit and an offer to license QR code use for tens of thousands of dollars. It is careful to point out that their target has already violated their patent, so simply removing the offending QR code is insufficient. The victims need to pay up in 30 days or get sued.


Symbology likely sends out thousands of these letters, hoping some percentage of the recipients will pay. After all, the victims’ options are limited to pay, negotiate and pay, go to court (which is very expensive), ignore and pray, or pay thousands of dollars to have a lawyer write a letter which, they hope, will cause Symbology to look elsewhere. All these alternatives have financial and stressful impacts on these businesses and cause them to reconsider using QR codes in the future.


Keypoint Intelligence Opinion

This money-grabbing operation and its cadre of law firms risk souring the market regarding paper-to-digital bridging technologies like QR codes. This threat will continue unless a concerned company or consortium takes legal action against Symbology Innovations, LLC to stop the patent trolling practice. Patent cases like this are expensive, but significant prior art exists to invalidate these patents. To recap, QR codes were invented in 1994 by Denso engineer Hara Masahiro. Sharp introduced the first cellphone with a built-in QR code reader in 2002. Yet Symbology’s patents only date from 2009-2010.


Interested attorneys can sift through the arguments in the many lawsuits that have been mainly dismissed or settled. However, all these cases have been one-off defenses of specific claims. Someone needs to step up and end the stream of litigation, or the production printing and direct mailing industries, which are worth billions of dollars, are at risk.


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