Monday, August 30, 2010

International equivalents of Apple's, Oracle's and Paul Allen's patents-in-suit

The three IT patent cases drawing the most interest these days are

  1. Apple vs. HTC (over Android; suit filed in March)

  2. Oracle vs. Google (over Java patents allegedly infringed by the Dalvik virtual machine; suit filed in August)

  3. the latest: Paul Allen's Interval Licensing vs. 11 defendants (Apple, Google as well as its YouTube subsidiary, eBay, Facebook, Yahoo, Netflix, AOL, Office Depot, OfficeMax, and Staples; over fundamental web/e-commerce patents; suit filed in August)

All of those lawsuits were filed in the US. Apple, in addition to suing in a court, also lodged a complaint with the US International Trade Commission, which could ban imports of infringing merchandise into the US.

While suing only in the US, the three plaintiffs also filed for international equivalents of some of the patents-in-suit (the patents they are now trying to enforce in court). There's a misconception among some people that software patents are a purely American phenomenon. They do exist in Europe, Asia and Australia as well.

There are various reasons for which Apple, Oracle and Paul Allen's Interval Licensing sue only in the US. After all, it's the jurisdiction where they have more patents than anywhere else, it's the largest single market at this point (since the EU doesn't have a single patent that can be enforced Europe-wide in only one litigation), and it's the legal system with which they and their lawyers are most comfortable. If they prevail in the US, they can most probably resolve the matter with respect to the rest of the world through negotiation, typically by agreeing on a worldwide license fee or -- if they want (like Apple) an injunction instead of money, through local cease-and-desist orders or a related clause of an overall settlement.

Nevertheless it's interesting to take a look at the international (European, Asian and Australian) aspects of those spectacular patent cases. It tells something about how internationally oriented those companies were during different parts of their history, and in some cases it shows that some other jurisdictions don't grant patents as easily as the US.

Please note that the information provided below on international equivalents of some of those US patents-in-suit isn't guaranteed to be complete. It is possible that additional international versions of some of the patents-in-suit exist but weren't identified by me.

Apple: very strong international patent portfolio

Of the three plaintiffs discussed in here, Apple clearly has the strongest position in terms of international patents. They always seemed to have been quite internationally oriented, and over the last decade or so even more than before.

Its patent on "time-based, non-constant translation of user interface objects between states" was filed internationally and is currently under examination at the European Patent Office (EPO).

The patent on a "touch screen device, method, and graphical user interface for determining commands by applying heuristics" was also applied for worldwide, in particular in Europe, South Korea, Japan, Canada and Australia. In addition to filing for a regular patent at the European level, Apple also obtained a utility model (a fast-track patent-like right) in Germany. Looking at that list, it's clear that Apple regards this patent as highly strategic.

Another highly strategic patent relates to "unlocking a device by performing gestures on an unlock image." Apple filed in South Korea, Japan, Europe (at the EPO as well as for a German patent, German utility model, Spanish patent and Austrian patent), Hong Kong, China, and Australia.

Also a pretty international patent application relates to "list scrolling and document translation, scaling, and rotation on a touch-screen display." Apple filed for this in China, South Korea, Australia, Canada, Japan, and massively in Europe where it designated 34 countries (even including tiny states like Liechtenstein and Monaco) and took out a fast-track German utility model in addition to applying for a full-blown patent.

Apple's patent application for an "automated response to and sensing of user activity in portable devices" was filed in Canada, China, Japan, South Korea, with the EPO, plus a fast-track German utility model.

Compared to those examples, Apple's patent application going back to 1995 and relating to a "method and apparatus for distributing events in an operating system" was modest. The European patent application only relates to the UK and Germany. They also filed for it in Australia and Japan.

Two other international patent applications from the mid-1990's were limited to Australia and Europe: "a network component system" and a "real-time processing system for serially transmitted data". The international scope of an application published three years ago, relating to an "extensible, replaceable network component system", is similarly limited.

Oracle/Sun: some international patents (but not on an Apple scale)

Sun filed for a patent on "protection domains to provide security in a computer system" in Australia and at the EPO, where it withdrew it (probably by failure to pay fees) in 2000. Companies withdraw such applications only if the examiners have serious objections that make it a waste of time and money to continue the process.

The patent application for a "method and device for preprocessing and packaging of class file" was filed in Japan and with the EPO, where Sun designated six countries (Germany, France, UK, Italy, Netherlands and Sweden).

The James Gosling patent application for a "method and apparatus for resolving data references in generated code" is, surprisingly, still being processed by the EPO in some newer form but an older one appears to have been granted a long time ago. It was also filed for in Japan.

For its "method and system for performing static initialization", Sun filed in China, Japan and with the EPO, where the three largest contracting states (Germany, UK and France) were designated.

Paul Allen's Interval Licensing: could also litigate overseas

Interval filed for its patent on a "browser for use in navigating a body of information, with particular application to browsing information represented by audiovisual data" in Australia and with the EPO, where it, however, withdrew its application in 2000.

Finally, an Interval patent-in-suit with significant international presence relates to an "attention manager for occupying the peripheral attention of a person in the vicinity of a display device." It was filed for in Australia, Japan, and with the EPO, with Germany, the UK and France being the designated countries there.

This overview demonstrates that the patent game is a global one, even though there are reasons (mentioned further above) for which litigation usually takes place in the US when patents are enforced against major IT companies.

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