Airbnb is Actively Growing its Patent Portfolio

Airbnb, the online service that allows people to lease or rent short-term lodging closed a $1 billion funding round earlier this month, valuing the company at a staggering $31 billion. Airbnb has grown, in part, due to a number of acquisitions in recent years, notably, Accoleo, CrashPadder, NabeWise, Localmind, and Tilt. Envision IP analyzed Airbnb’s patent portfolio to understand how the company has protected proprietary aspects of its platform and service, if if its patenting activity has been organic or as a result of acquisitions.

Airbnb currently has one issued US patent, and 13 published, pending US patent applications. Its patent and published applications were all organically filed-for by Airbnb, except for US 20150017616, entitled “Empirical expert determination and question routing system and method”, which was acquired from Localmind. The remaining acquisitions do not appear to have resulted in any patents or patent applications (at least none which are published). The company also acquired US 20130325723, from Tilt entitled, “Group funding platforms and related techniques”, however this application is currently abandoned.

Airbnb’s single issued US patent, US 9288217, is entitled “Identify and trustworthiness verification using online and offline components”. The patent is directed towards a system that allows hosts/property owners to verify the identity of guests using, for example, their date of birth, address, or photograph. Interestingly, the patent also covers ridesharing, where drivers can determine the trustworthiness of potential riders.

The company’s pending applications cover various aspects of its platform, from front-end features related to searching and ranking available inventory, and predictive matching of hosts and guests based on preferences, as well as back-end technologies related to passwords protection and database encryption. Below is a listing of Airbnb’s US patent portfolio:

While the company was started in 2008, Airbnb did not file its first US patent application until 2012. In addition to its US portfolio, Airbnb has 30 pending patent applications spread across Europe, Australia, Korea, China, Singapore, Mexico, and Israel, as well as PCT applications before WIPO.

Airbnb competitor HomeAway, Inc., the vacation rental marketplace owned by Expedia, also has a robust portfolio of US patents and published applications. HomeAway’s brand includes various websites such as VRBO.com, VacationRentals.com, OwnersDirect.co.uk, TripHomes.com, and others. The company has two issued US patents, and 23 pending, published US patent applications. The portfolio is primarily organically filed-for by HomeAway, except for a pending application acquired from Escapia, Inc.

HomeAway’s issued patents relate to creating social graphs from user data (US 9269100), and a method of updating, in real-time, travel arrival times based on the user’s current speed and direction of travel (US 9557185). The company’s pending applications relate to providing customized content to users, such as travel companions and localized activities/events, an auction system for vacation listings, and various social features such as disseminating user feedback, split payments, and owner/user messaging.

The pending application US 20110313798 acquired from Escapia, entitled “Short-term housing rental management system and method”, may potentially prove to be a valuable asset for HomeAway. The application has a priority date on 2006, two years before Airbnb was started. The application has an extensive prosecution history, and is currently in a second request for continued examination (RCE) status. A final rejection was issued on March 23, 2017. It will be interesting to see if HomeAway can push this application through with relatively broad claims; if it can, the company may have a fundamental patent that it may be able to leverage against competitors. Figure 2 of the application is shown below, which depicts a high-level architecture diagram connecting property owners to renters via a short-term housing server and an agency:

Among Airbnb’s other major competitors (Tripping.com, HouseTrip, FlipKey, VayStays, VacayHero, Roomorama, and Wimdu), only FlipKey has a US patenting activity, with two issued patents related to cultivating and providing guest feedback on rental accommodations. The remaining competitors do not have any published US patent applications or issued patents.

Interestingly, we did not identify any patent acquisitions from IBM by any of the companies analyzed above. As PatentVue has reported in the past, IBM has become a major source of patents by many high-growth technology companies, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, Alibaba, and others. It is clear that the short-term lodging marketplace has many overlapping technologies with reservation systems, online search and directory listings, messaging, ride-sharing, and social networking. We would not be surprised if Airbnb, and others, eventually acquire patents with earlier priority dates to bolster their patent portfolios for defensive purposes.

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