By Greg Mills
The press is reporting a monstrous patent case in Federal Court in the state of Texas that went against Apple for the "Cover Flow" way of rolling images across the display, as seem in the album art display in iTunes and elsewhere in the Mac OS.
While the judgement likely means at the end of it all, Apple may well have to pay some amount of money, the current US$600,000,000 judgement will not likely stand. Frankly, so many patents on computer graphical interfaces have been written it staggers the mind to thing much could really be novel anymore.
As an inventor with about 10 issued patents to my name, I am very familiar with the flawed US Patent system. You love it and hate it at the same time. Ironically, yesterday the patent office issued a new patent to Apple for some aspects of Cover Flow. I have not read the patents involved so this article is more related to the issues of tech innovation in general that that case in particular.
People who are not familiar with the way patents work always go to the drawings and read the abstract and figure they understand the patent. In actuality, the claims are the guts of a patent and the drawings and specification are given to only help understand the claims.
Patents are the only way to protect the valuable research done a the cost of billions of dollars, keeping the "me too" knock off products from stealing market share. Apple and every other company patents, copyrights, trademarks and keeps trade secrets on about everything they do.
The problem with patents in particular, is that interpretation of claims varies depending on who you are. There is both a narrow and broad interpretation of claims. The company who owns the patent tries to get the broadest claims possible when they pursue patents. Those who try to get as close as possible with a similar product try to narrowly construe patent claims. This is the crux of the issues that lead to heated and multi-million dollar patent cases.
When you have hundreds of attorneys on staff, they will find work to justify their jobs. The tactical decision to sue or not depends on how good a case there is and the value of what is at issue. The life expectancy of computer technology is so short, by the time a patent is issued, the patented technology is obsolete and has been improved with the next step in the evolution of the computer market. The time period between filing and having a patent issued is one to two years.
Also an important issue is the tactical market situation. Microsoft suing Android phone makers is an example of this. Rather than innovating a superior mobile OS when you have a load of patents that are even distantly related to what a competitor is doing as Microsoft has, you sue them and throw your portfolio of patents against the wall and wait to see what sticks. Notice that Microsoft didn't sue Google; they went after cell phone hardware companies over fundamental features that they want to stop Android from exploiting for market reasons.
Another issue is that suing for patent infringement has a certain harassment value and certainly distracts competitors. The harassment value may be enough to prompt settlement or cross licensing talks. This is very common when there are a lot of patents on both sides that can be horse traded that allow the parties to use the common technologies and keep all others out of the protected product features.
Suing and being sued in Federal Court is very expensive and, thus, the bigger the company the more likely they are to be able to push a case through the courts system. Ironically, a patent owner is unlikely to get attorney fees, even if they win and damages are directly related to the value of the market advantage the patented technology brings to the table that can be proven.
A registered copyright on the other hand is super cheap to file (under $100) and, by law, the copyright owner gets attorney fees and a statutory minimum of $100,000. This is the basis for those outrageous judgements against people who downloaded songs and happen to be discovered and sued by the music industry.
If only the patent laws were construed in favor of inventors instead of the deep pockets. Perhaps I am infected with some sort of dread inventor's syndrome, since I still invent things even after being cheated or disappointed by every company I have ever done business with on my technology. My latest patented idea, which I intend to follow with myself instead of attempting to license it. See my web site at CottageIndustrySolar.com That's Greg's Bite for today.
(Greg Mills, is a Faux Artist in Kansas City. Formerly a new product R&D man for the paint sundry market, he holds 11 US patents. He's working on a solar energy startup, www.CottageIndustrySolar.com using a patent pending process of turning waste dual pane glass into thermal solar panels used to heat water. Greg writes for intellectual web sites and Mac related issues. See Greg's art web site at www.gregmills.info ; His email is firstname.lastname@example.org )