Ebay agrees to pay up for 'Buy It Now'

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- EBay Inc. has settled a seven-year patent dispute with MercExchange LLC that prompted an important intellectual-property ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The online auction company said in a statement Thursday that it bought the three MercExchange patents it had been accused of violating. The price was not disclosed; eBay (EBAY, Fortune 500) said the figure would not materially affect its financial results.

Great Falls, Va.-based MercExchange sued eBay in 2001, arguing eBay's "Buy It Now" option -- which lets eBay sellers make items available at set prices -- infringed on MercExchange patents. MercExchange's founder, patent lawyer Thomas Woolston, had patented technologies related to an electronic network of consignment stores.

A jury ruled in MercExchange's favor in 2003, awarding $35 million in damages. A judge reduced the award to $25 million, but with interest the penalty had reached $30 million by December, when a federal judge certified the penalty and eBay was still threatening to continue appealing.

MercExchange had hoped to win a court order preventing eBay from continuing to use the technology and pursued that quest to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2006 that judges do not necessarily have to block a technology from being used when a jury finds a patent violation.

EBay said the settlement would end all claims by MercExchange. In addition to the three patents involved in the case, eBay said it would license other technologies from MercExchange.

EBay spokeswoman Kim Rubey said she could not elaborate.

A spokesman for MercExchange did not immediately return a call.



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Apple's iTunes no. 2 music retailer

Apple Inc.'s online iTunes music store is now the number-two music retailer in the U.S. behind Wal-Mart Stores Inc. as measured by unit volume, market researcher NPD Group said Tuesday.

NPD said that iTunes moved into second place due to the amount of music it sold during 2007, which was based on a 12-track CD equivalency for song downloads.

The market researcher began tracking music sold stateside during the middle of 2006. In the fourth quarter of that year, Best Buy (BBY, Fortune 500) Co. took second place behind Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500), while Target Corp (TGT, Fortune 500). took third place and Apple's (AAPL, Fortune 500) iTunes store fourth place, NPD analyst Russ Crupnick said.

For the full year 2007, Best Buy came in third and Target fourth, he said.

Crupnick called Apple's move to the number-two spot "fairly understandable given the pressure that's been on CDs and the almost 50% growth in digital downloading in the past year."

About 10% of music acquired in the U.S. was through legal downloads in 2007, and consumers who bought digital music legally through pay-to-download Web sites grew by 5 million to 29 million in 2007, NPD said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, an estimated 1 million consumers did not buy CDs in 2007, and 48% of U.S. teenagers didn't buy any CDs during the year, up from 38% in the year before, according to NPD data.

"It wouldn't surprise me if we see the same things continuing into 2008 because what our research is showing is that teens are continuing to check out on the CD," Crupnick said.

NPD also said that the amount of music consumers bought in the U.S. rose 6% in 2007, though the decline in CD sales and increase in legal digital download sales still led to a 10% overall decrease in music spending.

Apple shares fell $2.55, or 2.1%, to $117.19 in morning trading, while Wal-Mart shares rose 80 cents to $51.13.

IBM to buyback $15B in stock

IBM is raising the bottom end of its profit forecast for 2008 on the back of a new stock buyback plan, surpassing Wall Street's expectations.

The Armonk, N.Y.-based company said Tuesday it plans to buy back $15 billion worth of its stock, which will boost its earnings per share. IBM expects to spend $12 billion on the buyback this year.

IBM (IBM, Fortune 500) is forecasting a profit for the year of at least $8.25 per share. In January, the company said it expects to earn $8.20 to $8.30 per share.

Analysts are predicting a profit of $8.22 per share, according to a Thomson Financial poll.

Hollywood writers approve new contract

The Writers Guild of America says members have voted overwhelmingly to approve a new contract with Hollywood studios that increases payment for shows offered on the Internet.

The guild says the deal was endorsed by 93.6 percent of those who voted in Los Angeles and New York.

The contract was approved through a mail-in ballot that came after members were briefed two weeks ago on the deal and voted to end the 100-day strike that devastated the entertainment industry.

Under the contract, writers will get a maximum flat fee of about $1,200 for programs streamed on the Internet during the deal's first two years and then get 2 percent of a distributor's gross in year three

Hotmail freezes up for hours

Hotmail and other sites requiring a Microsoft login have been out for hours for some users.

SEATTLE (AP) -- Microsoft Corp.'s free Web-based e-mail service and other sites have been unavailable for hours to Internet users around the world Tuesday.

Web surfers were unable to log onto Hotmail, along with other services that require a Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) login, such as the Xbox Live video game community site and the Windows Live Messenger instant messaging program.

Microsoft confirmed the problem was international in scope, but did not say how many people were affected or when a resolution was expected.

"We are aware that some customers may be experiencing difficulty accessing their Windows Live accounts," said Microsoft spokeswoman Samantha McManus in a statement. "We're actively investigating the cause and are working to take the appropriate steps to remedy the situation as rapidly as possible."

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America for sale

- The big foreign-money purchases of stakes in Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley are merely a hint of what's ahead in 2008. Foreign buyers, such as sovereign wealth funds from countries like Kuwait and Singapore, will continue to make headlines by grabbing major U.S. assets this year, and the trend is much broader than investments in Wall Street firms that need a capital infusion. What's important to understand is why this is happening - the reasons go beyond what most people realize - and why it may be even more worrisome than it seems.

Such deals were hot even before the bank bailouts. Foreign buyers set a record last year by purchasing $414 billion of U.S. assets - even more than they bought in the wonder year of 2000. The usual explanation is that the dollar was cheap, which was certainly an important factor. But more had to be going on. Many of the biggest deals were done by Asian or Middle Eastern buyers who already hold much of their wealth in dollars. Those investors didn't get a discount because of the dollar's declining value. In addition, U.S. stocks were hitting record highs through much of last year, so it's hard to say that American businesses in general were bargains. Why, then, were foreign buyers so busy?

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Exxon sets record with $40 billion US annual profit

Exxon Mobil Corp. posted the largest annual profit by a U.S. company Friday — $40.6 billion US — as the world's biggest publicly traded oil company benefited from record-high crude prices at year's end.

Exxon also set a United States record for the biggest quarterly profit, posting net income of $11.7 billion for the final three months of 2007, beating its own mark of $10.7 billion in the fourth quarter of 2005.

The previous record for annual profit was $39.5 billion, which Exxon Mobil made in 2006.

The eye-popping results weren't a surprise given record prices for a barrel of oil at the end of 2007. For much of the fourth quarter, oil hovered around $90 US a barrel, more than 50 per cent higher than a year ago.

Crude prices reached an all-time trading high of $100.09 on Jan. 3 but have fallen about 10 per cent since.

Exxon Mobil, which owns 70 per cent of Canada's largest oil producer and gasoline refiner and seller, Imperial Oil Ltd., is one of the world's biggest energy companies, with three per cent of global oil output.

Microsoft offers $44.6B US in cash and stock for Yahoo

Microsoft Corp. has pounced on slumping Internet icon Yahoo Inc. with an unsolicited takeover offer of $44.6 billion US in its boldest bid yet to challenge Google Inc.'s
dominance of the lucrative online search and advertising markets.

The surprise offer of $31 US per share, made late Thursday and announced Friday, seizes on Yahoo's weakness while Microsoft tries to muscle up in a high-stakes battle with Google likely to define the technology landscape for years to come.

Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, shown here at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, announced job cuts of 1,000 employees earlier this week.Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, shown here at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, announced job cuts of 1,000 employees earlier this week.
(Associated Press/Paul Sakuma)

In a statement Friday, Yahoo said it will "carefully and promptly" study Microsoft's bid.

With its profits steadily sliding, Yahoo's stock slipped to a four-year low earlier this week and a new management team has been trying to steer a turnaround but sees more turbulence through 2008.

The announcement lifted Yahoo's share price by more than 47 per cent, while Google fell eight per cent, dragged down by a fourth-quarter earnings report that missed Wall Street expectations.