BODY: Auctioneer eBay went on trial Thursday in a patent case challenging whether it owns the technology that helped make it the Internet's brightest star.
Thomas Woolston, a Virginia patent lawyer who has challenged patents at other Internet companies, claims he owns key patents that eBay infringed upon to let consumers make binding offers with secured credit cards over the Internet.
In the weeks leading up to the trial, Woolston, 39, has charged that eBay "has built a very successful factory on land it does not own." The former technology expert for the CIA is seeking a permanent injunction, which could shut eBay down, and unspecified damages, which could cost eBay millions, legal experts say.
The trial in Norfolk, Va., could take weeks. Patent cases are difficult to win and rarely go to trial. That Woolston got this far, legal experts say, is unusual.
"Judges usually throw out claims because patents are so hard to interpret," says Bruce Sunstein, a patent lawyer. "Even if the judge in this case issues a ruling, it could easily be overturned by an appeals court with a different interpretation of the patent."
Woolston, who had hoped to build a business trading baseball cards online, says he submitted a request for an online auction patent in April 1995, several months before eBay's launch.
EBay, which has tried to get Woolston's claims dismissed since they were filed in late 2001, says the lawsuit is without merit and it will not settle. The Silicon Valley company, which posted strong earnings earlier this week, claims the patents are invalid because other people were operating similar systems before Woolston filed his applications.
Woolston is no stranger to patent disputes. He sued GoTo.com, now Overture Services, for patent infringement and received an undisclosed settlement and license agreement for his technology in 2000.
Woolston also is awaiting a decision from the patent office over a claim he made four years ago to revoke a patent awarded to Priceline.com. He says the patent should have been awarded to him.