Nabil Ghaly is an engineer, an inventor, and a business owner. He is also the plaintiff in a case which charges that Humor Rainbow, Inc. — the parent company of dating site OKCupid — illegally used technology that he had patented over 15 years ago. The case was first reported by Inner City Press on June 20.
Ghaly says that OKCupid’s mobile dating app relies on technology and ideas which he first came up with at least 20 years ago. In court papers, Ghaly says that he sent repeated letters to Humor Rainbow to alert them to the fact that he had already patented the technology. He asked them to sign a licensing agreement but, he says, they declined. That’s when Ghaly decided to bring the matter to court. Ghaly’s patent infringement case opened on June 20 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Ghaly Filed for a Patent for a Hand-Held Matchmaking Device in 1999
Ghaly filed a request for a patent for his hand-held matchmaking device on February 22, 1999. You can see the sketch he submitted as part of his patent application, above. The hand-held device that Ghaly envisioned looks a bit like an old Nintendo joystick; bear in mind this was 1999, well before the advent of the iPhone. And Ghaly described the device using terminology that sounds a little like the way you’d describe a video game. Here’s how he wrote up the device on his patent application:
“A personal hand held play device, method and apparatus, is disclosed which includes means to Store personal information related to the player, means to transmit or receive personal information to or from another device, means to match the Stored information with information received, and means to display the results of Such a match. One object of the device is to predict the degree of compatibility between two players using Stored information related to behavioral patterns and personality profiles. The device also matches areas of common interest between players. In one embodiment, the device functions by requiring the player to Select multiple choice answers to Stored questions. The answers are then processed and archived in a format compatible to perform a match. In the preferred embodiment, the device displays the results of the match through the use of a plurality of light emitting means in different colors. A plurality of Sound effects are also provided to heighten the enjoyment of using the device.”
The basic description will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever used a dating site. Ghaly’s system would ask participants multiple choice questions in order to create a profile. The device would store that information and then use it to determine whether participants were compatible with each other. Ghaly charges that back in 1999, this was a brand new idea and that he deserves credit for his prescience. His complaint charges that OK Cupid didn’t file for a patent for a mobile dating app until 2013 (that patent was granted in 2017).
It’s not clear whether Ghaly also intends to go after other dating apps for patent violation.
2. Humor Rainbow Settled a Previous Patent Violation Lawsuit from the Parent Company of JDate
The Observer reports that back in 2011, Humor Rainbow faced another patent violation lawsuit. That’s when Spark, the parent company of JDate, sued Humor Rainbow for what they said was a violation of a patent from 1999. Here’s the original JDate patent; it was filed in 1997 and granted in 1999.
The patent describes a computerized system for deciding whether two people are interested in each other. Under the system, the two people are notified if they are mutually interested in each other. If only one person is interested, then nobody is notified; so a one-sided attraction will always be kept a secret. This may seem completely ordinary and familiar now. But in the late 1990s, when personal ads were still the norm, this was a new enough idea that it could be patented. Here’s the wording from the JDate patent:
“A method and apparatus for automating the process of confidentially determining whether people feel mutual attraction or have mutual interests and for automating the process of notifying the people involved of such a match in feelings or interests, while allowing anonymity if no mutual attraction or interests exist. A computer system receives inputs from various persons indicating the identities of persons for whom they feel attraction or with whom they share mutual interests. The system collects this information and periodically searches for matches, i.e., for mutual attractions or interests that have been entered into the system. No notification occurs unless the system determines that a match in attraction or interests exists. If a first person’s feelings or interests are not mirrored by a second person, the system will not notify either person and only the computer system will be aware of the first person’s feelings for the second person.”
The Observer reports that Humor Rainbow settled the suit for an undisclosed amount of money. The Observer also says that the settlement included not only OKCupid, but all the companies owned by IAC, the ultimate parent company.
3.Ghaly Moved to New York from Cairo in 1969 & Eventually Served as Chief Signal Engineer for the NYC Transit Authority
Ghaly’s LinkedIn profile says that he graduated from Cairo University in 1969, earning a degree in Electrical Engineering. He then moved to New York and attended Pratt Institute, graduating in 1971 with an MSEE in Electrical Engineering. Then he went on to study at Columbia University, earning a doctoral degree in engineering.
From 1997 to 2007, Ghaly served as the Chief Signal Engineer for the NYC Transit Authority. At the time, Ghaly had a vision of a “fully automated future” for New York’s subway system. Ghaly lamented that New York was far behind cities like San Francisco and told that New York Times that New York needed a “revolution” in its transit system.
After he left the transit authority, Ghaly went to work as an independent consultant; he created a firm called New York Rail (NYR) Technology. Ghaly’s firm advised railroads and rapid transit systems on train control and signal systems. You can watch Ghaly being interviewed at an industry conference in London here.
4. Ghaly’s Devices Also Relied on Colored Lights & Sound Effects to ‘Heighten the Enjoyment’ for Users
Ghaly’s 1999 patent application has some interesting details about the device he had envisioned. The application says that when two people were successfully matched through their devices, each device would put on a light show, complete with sound effects:
“Upon receiving the Synchronization Signal, the two devices will display a Sound and light Show that represents the results of the match. Such a Sound and light show will continue for a predetermined period of time after which the device will return to a receiving standby mode. One example to represent the result of the match is to use various colors of the rainbow Spectrum. In Such an example the “red” color is one extreme on the Spectrum that represents the highest matching Score possible. Conversely, the “blue” color is the opposite extreme on the spectrum that represents the lowest matching Score possible. Other colors and shades will indicate matching Scores between the two extremes. Similarly, Sound effects may range from a buzzer for a negative match to a Siren for a high Scoring match. Alternatively, Sound effects may include a plurality of melodies each of which is associated with a specific result of the match.”
Ghaly also suggested that users should personalize their devices by adding sports symbols, or astrological symbols.
Besides his patent for the hand-held match device, Ghaly holds patents for an interactive slot machine, a gaming device, and a train automation system. You can read more about Ghaly’s patents here.
Ghaly Once Sued Hasbro Over an Electronic Logic Game
In 2002, Ghaly brought a lawsuit against Hasbro over a hand-held electronic game. Ghaly claimed that Hasbro had infringed on his patented idea for a game. According to the complaint in the case, Ghaly’s patent was for a sort of two-dimensional Rubik’s cube that could be played on an electronic device. The court eventually ruled that Hasbro’s game was different in enough respects that it did not infringe on Ghaly’s patent.
Until recently, Ghaly lived in Long Island. In fact, Ghaly was involved in a separate legal suit which grew out of a property dispute between himself, his wife, his sister in law, and an insurance company; you can read the complaint in that case right here.
Now, Ghaly appears to run a company called Ghaly Devices. Ghaly Devices is listed on Ghaly’s legal complaint as “a Texas Company, with its principal place of business located at 815 Brazos St., Ste. 500 Austin, TX 78701.” The case, like all patent cases, is being brought in Federal court. Its venue is the Southern District of New York because Humor Rainbow is based in New York City.