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Spring Design Sues Barnes & Noble Over E-Reader

 Spring Design's Alex and Barnes & Noble's Nook
(L to R) Spring Design's Alex and Barnes & Noble's Nook. Click to enlarge.
Here's a sure sign that the nascent e-reader market is starting to mature: Key players are suing each other.

Spring Design today filed a lawsuit claiming that Barnes & Noble illegally used Spring's technology in the book retailing giant's recently unveiled wireless periodical device, the Nook.

The smaller firm on Oct. 19 unwrapped details of Alex, its upcoming, Android-powered, dual-screen e-reader. Now it's charging in a lawsuit that Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) stole trade secrets and violated a non-disclosure agreement between the two companies.

Cupertino Calif.-based Spring Design charges that Barnes & Noble copied some of Alex's features for the Nook e-reader, which it showed off Oct. 21 and is expected to begin selling later this month. Like the Alex, the Nook also features a dual-screen and runs on Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) open source mobile platform, Android.

"Spring Design unfortunately had to take the appropriate action to protect its intellectual property rights," Eric Kmiec, Spring Design's vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. "We showed the Alex e-book design to Barnes & Noble in good faith with the intention of working together to provide a superior dual screen e-book to the market."

Barnes & Noble spokespeople did not return requests for comment by press time.

"Our business goal is and has always been to develop a strategic relationship with B&N with the goal of increasing their share of the e-book market with a compelling and innovative e-book product," Kmiec told InternetNews.com. "This remains our business objective, and we would like to resolve this matter as quickly as possible so that we can begin the work to develop and grow this market together and enrich the overall e-book reading experience."

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, comes at a time when the e-reader market is experiencing explosive growth in new devices coming to market -- all hoping to catch the front-runner, Amazon's Kindle, and to get a slice of the burgeoning market.

Spring Design first developed and began filing patents on Alex in 2006, and today, is not mincing words over the alleged misdeeds of Barnes & Noble in advance of the Alex's launch, slated for sometime this year.

"Since the beginning of 2009, Spring Design and Barnes & Noble worked within a non-disclosure agreement, including many meetings, e-mails and conference calls with executives ranging up to the president of Barnes and Noble.com, discussing confidential information regarding the features, functionality and capabilities of Alex," Spring Design said in a statement. "Throughout, Barnes & Noble's marketing and technical executives extolled Alex's 'innovative' features, never mentioning their use of those features until the public disclosure of the Nook."

At the crux of the dispute is the Alex feature called Duet Navigator, which provides for interaction and navigation techniques between content displayed on its two screens. It also provides access to the Internet for related references and links.

The Nook does feature a dual-screen, but does not offer Internet browsing, and its second, smaller screen is used for device navigation. The Alex's smaller screen, meanwhile, will feature related, linkable content.

"As the first in the market to offer an e-book with full Internet browsing while reading and with easy navigational control via its touch screen, Alex is well-positioned to offer the most dynamic and powerful reading device in the market," Kmiec said in a statement. "It is our desire to resolve this matter so that we can move forward together to expand and grow this e-book market with enriched user experience, bringing readers to a new level of reading enjoyment."