Thursday, March 31, 2011

Android patent suit no. 38: Tierravision sues Google, Microsoft and RIM over spatial data patent

I recently published an infographic that shows 37 Android-related patent lawsuits that have been filed since March 2010. I have now found no. 38. It's not exclusively Android-related, but a key element of Android is specifically accused of infringement.

Tierravision, a San Diego company founded "in or around January 2000" according to the complaint, yesterday filed a complaint with the US District Court for the District of Southern California (case no. 3:11-cv-00639) against Research In Motion, Google and Microsoft, alleging the infringement of US Patent no. RE41,983 on a "method of organizing and compressing spatial data."

Tierravision's accusations relate to

  • BlackBerry smartphones with BlackBerry Maps, specifically naming the examples of "RIM's Torch, Style, Curve, Pearl, Bold, Tour and Storm smartphones",

  • Google Maps Mobile, particularly "in its Android operating system that [Google] supplies to smartphone manufacturers such as HTC for incorporation into smartphones, such as the HTC Magic", and

  • Bing Mobile, particularly "in its Windows Phone OS 7 operating system that [Microsoft] supplies to smartphone manufacturers such as HTC for incorporation into smartphones, such as the HTC HD7".

So this is the 38th Android-related patent lawsuit, and TierraVision has just become the second company to assert patents against Windows Phone 7 (the only other example so far being Sony, which named a WP7-powered device among various LG phones in its December 2010 ITC complaint).

A disappointing aspect of Tierravision's lawsuit for the open source community is that this is yet another example of a law firm that portrays itself as a friend of open source but favors and asserts software patents. Tierravision is represented by DLA Piper, the firm of Mark Radcliffe, General Counsel of the Open Source Initiative. In other words, OSI's favorite law firm brings Android patent suit no. 38.

I noticed something similar years ago: Heather Meeker, pro bono counsel for the Mozilla Foundation, wrote an op-ed for LinuxInsider that called on the community not to oppose software patents and claimed copyright is a bigger problem for open source than patents (although no open source community member I know would agree). I could tell similar stories about certain lawyers affiliated with the Free Software Foundation. The bottom line is that open source foundations provide a great platform for lawyers to promote their services, but those lawyers are typically in favor of software patents and benefit from software patent litigation.

Getting back to TierraVision's complaint, let's look at the patent-in-suit, the history of contacts between the plaintiff and the defendants, and put this into the context of other location- and mapping-related patents that are being asserted against smartphone companies.

The patent-in-suit

The RE41,983 patent has a total of 85 claims, and the two independent claims asserted by Tierravision in this lawsuit (claims 60 and 69) relate to the display of maps on a "portable wireless device" with data from relevant map segments to be transferred from a server (and cached) as needed.

Tierravision stops short of saying that it invented the concept of digital maps, or of vector graphics, but the company essentially claims it can seek royalties from anyone who implements that concept efficiently with some kind of segmentation and caching of the required data. I'm sure the defendants will contest that view.

History of contacts between the parties

Tierravision doesn't say more about its contact with Microsoft than stating that it "had actual notice [...] before the filing of this complaint." That sounds like a letter, not like extensive negotiations.

Tierravision goes into more detail concerning its contacts with RIM and Google. If what the complaint states is true, RIM actually negotiated an acquisition of Tierravision for $4-5 million in 2004, then walked out on a possible deal, and built its own mapping solution. In 2006, Tierravision claims it spoke to a Google Maps Mobile product manager "on a conference call" and Google subsequently looked at Tierravision's technology.

Other location and mapping patent suits

There are some other lawsuits in which location and mapping patents are being asserted:

It remains to be seen whether RIM, Google and Microsoft will appoint one legal team to defend all three of them. In connection with GeoTag, Microsoft and Google put aside all other issues and agreed to cooperate against a company that behaved particularly aggressively. But in the Tierravision case, it's possible that differences in technology and business models, and also in terms of previous contacts between the plaintiff and the different defendants, limit coordination between the parties to those aspects of the case concerning which they face the same issues and have congruent interests.

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