Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Google's Motorola Mobility must remove scheduling feature to import devices into the U.S.

Some patents can be worked around in ways that change only the inner workings of a product and go unnoticed by consumers. But some other patents are so broad that the only option to steer clear of infringement is the removal of an entire feature: a "throwout" rather than a workaround. The patent over which the ITC granted Microsoft an import ban against Google subsidiary Motorola Mobility's Android devices is an example of the latter category of patents. And as various media (examples: 1, 2) have already reported, that import ban is going to take effect in a matter of hours since the White House apparently didn't veto it.

Motorola's devices will continue to be available, but it will be have to be stripped of the meeting scheduler functionality covered by Microsoft's U.S. Patent No. 6,370,566 on "generating meeting requests and group scheduling from a mobile device". Any software preinstalled on those devices, whether it's the client software communicating with the Google Calendar service or preloaded social networking apps, won't be able to let users schedule meetings from those mobile devices.

The '566 patent may have arisen from Microsoft's ActiveSync technology, but its application is certainly not limited to ActiveSync. Generally, Motorola's smartphones or tablets that allow a user to schedule a meeting using its calendar and then either generate an email about that meeting or synchronize that calendar with another device (such as a server or another computer) infringe the patent. In short, Microsoft's '566 patent covers (i) scheduling a meeting from the calendar of a mobile device and having the device send an email providing critical information about that meeting, and (ii) synchronizing the device's calendar with the calendars maintained by the user's other devices/systems.

In order to discuss this in more detail, we have to read the claims. The scope of a patent is (primarily) defined by its claims, and claims are sometimes difficult to understand. It can take many months, or even a year (such as in a dispute between Apple and HTC), to sort out in court whether an alleged "workaround" does or does not infringe. In the particular case of the asserted claims (claims 1, 2, 5 and 6) of Microsoft's '566 patent, there simply isn't any way to provide the functionality of scheduling a meeting from a mobile device without infringing on this patent.

The broadest one of the asserted claims is claim 1. The other enforced claims are dependent claims that add additional limitations to claim 1. For the analysis of Motorola's non-options, we can therefore focus on claim 1. In order to avoid infringement of a patent claim, one has to be able to argue that at least one limitation (i.e., claim element) is not infringed. If we look at the limitations of claim 1 one by one, it's not hard to see that none of them can be circumvented. Let's look at the claim as a whole (I'll add letters to each limitation for easier reference) and then at each of its limitations:

  • (a) A mobile device, comprising:

    • (b) an object store;

    • (c) an application program configured to maintain objects on the object store;

    • (d) a user input mechanism configured to receive user input information;

    • (e) a synchronization component configured to synchronize individual objects stored on the object store with remote objects stored on a remote object store;

    • (f) a communications component configured to communicate with a remote device containing the remote object store; and

    • (g) wherein the application program is further configured to generate a meeting object and an electronic mail scheduling request object based on the user input information.

The procedural history of this ITC action is that the parties accepted the plain and ordinary meaning except that they agreed, for the sake of greater clarity, that a "mobile device" -- limitation (a) -- "does not include a laptop computer". That clarification is irrelevant to the Motorola Android situation. It would have been relevant only to an invalidity contention.

Limitation (b), "object store", can be any storage of data objects, be it a highly-structured database or a much simpler kind of store. The plain and ordinary meaning of the claim language includes every storage medium from memory to a hard disk.

Limitation (c) defines the app that is used on the mobile device. All apps -- at least al calendar apps -- undoubtedly "maintain objects" on some kind of object store.

Limitation (d) reads on any or all input technologies (keyboard, touchscreen, voice, whatever).

Limitation (e) describes all synchronization between the client and the server, not just one particular synchronization strategy.

Limitation (f) refers to any communications component that will synchronize client and server with respect to the new object.

Limitation (g) is inevitably infringed if the meeting request is, or can be (the patent only says that the app has to be "configured to" do this), emailed to those invited.

Even the additional limitations of the dependent claims are hard to work around. For example, claim 2 adds the limitation of "a global identifier property uniquely identifying the meeting object among a plurality of other objects", but without such an ID, the system could confuse meeting requests.

The fact that Motorola didn't even dispute infringement (according to page 65 of the initial determination) confirms that the only way to deal with this patent, short of removing the functionality it covers, is to prove the patent invalid. And Motorola didn't manage to convince the ITC of that. That's why the import ban was ordered. Motorola's customers are now going to see the effect once they buy any of the devices that have entered the United States after the import ban takes effect, which it will at midnight.

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