Photography company the victim of patent abuse, owner says - WFSB 3 Connecticut

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Photography company the victim of patent abuse, owner says

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Middlefield, CT (WFSB) -

A local business sued for using patent-protected ideas said it was just using common sense methods.

Mike Skelps said he did not steal ideas when he opened Capstone Photography, a sports photography business in Middlefield.

He said one of his specialties was snapping shots of runners as they made their way to the finish line.

"In 2005, I ran a marathon and I was disappointed with the quality of the photos that came out," Skelps said. "So I decided to give it a shot. I thought I could do better."

For nearly 10 years, Skelps said he built his company from humble beginnings to a nationwide business. He staffed hundreds of photographers.

Now, he said all of that could be in jeopardy because of a lawsuit.

"We're in a tough spot and we're looking to survive this," said Skelps.

Skelps was accused of using two patented techniques in his business model. He said the crux of the suit stems from the way the company organizes its photos.

After Capstone's photographers shoot a race, they post photos from the event to its website. Once there, an athlete can search their bib number to find the picture.

"If you photograph five people, you can probably just put them in a gallery," Skelps explained. "If you photograph 100 people you can probably just get away with dumping them out there and letting them just look through them. If you photograph a thousand people wearing numbers, I cannot think of any other way to do this."

Skelps said Peter Wolf of PhotoCrazy.com, the plaintiff in the case, was awarded two patents protecting the concept of creating databases that allow customers to search with identifying information, like a race bib number.

There's just no other logical way to organize photos from large scale races, Skelps said.

"There's nothing novel or a quantum step forward in terms of the technology," he said.

The other issue in the case was the use of advertising on the photo. Skelps said some races want to add a logo on the photos, which Wolf said infringes on another one of his patents. That patent was granted in 2010, according to Wolf.

"We're trying to figure out how to counter this threat of really something we believe is an improper use of the patent system," said Skelps. "Instead of supporting true innovation, it comes to be a tool to create a monopoly."

The I-Team called Wolf at his office in California.

"In 1999, I developed some techniques that were unique to the industry and we were able to get a patent for the event photography," he said. "In 2006, just about the time Capstone Photography started, the patents were issued."

Wolf holds 11 patents and four trademarks in all. He's also defended them in court before.

"We had about 10 defendants in the court so far," Wolf told the I-Team. "All eventually settled with us and signed a license agreement."

Wolf said Skelps' copied his technique to generate revenue. He said he's simply seeking compensation for the use of his idea.

He said he called Skelps a few years ago, offering to sell him a license. However, he said Skelps ignored the offer under the advice of his attorney.

Skelps said he sees the current suit as an attempt to extort his company and that he's just the latest on the chopping block.

"You chase a dream, and put your life savings into it, and you build up a really great team of employees and photographers. Work really hard to be the best in your industry and you know you're the best, or close to the best in your industry, and just to have something like this come out," Skelps said.

Skelps said he launched a website explaining his side of the story. He said anyone wishing to donate to his legal defense can do so at the website EndPatentAbuse.com.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, along with 41 other attorneys general, support new legislation for a senate bill that aims to reduce patent abuse in the U.S.

They said they hope to cut down on people acquiring patents for the sole purpose of making income from people infringing on those patents.

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