Friday, February 22, 2013

German court stays Samsung's voiceover patent lawsuit against Apple: patent likely invalid

This morning the Mannheim Regional Court ordered a stay of a Samsung v. Apple lawsuit over the iPhone's screen-to-speech (or, more briefly, voiceover) functionality pending a parallel nullity action that appears highly likely to result in the invalidation of the patent-in-suit. DE10040386 (B4) is the German equivalent of U.S. Patent No. 6,937,700 on a "device for and method of outputting data on display section of portable telephone". The lengthier English title of the underlying patent application is "speech output device for data displayed on mobile telephone converts data from display into speech data for output via loudspeaker". In a nutshell, it's a patent on pushing a button and getting the screen content, including not only text but also icons, read aloud to you.

Judge Andreas Voss ("Voß" in German) explained the rationale behind the order. The court, which has unmatched expertise in the adjudication of smartphone-related patent cases, declined to adopt Samsung's proposed claim construction. In response to Apple's challenge to the validity of this patent, Samsung had attempted to narrow the scope of the patent by arguing that voice output of text appearing on the screen is not really claimed (this functionality undisputedly existed before) but that the technical contribution of this patent consists in the idea of additionally generating voice output for icons (such as a symbol that indicates the receipt of new email messages). Judge Voss deems it highly probable that this submitted claim construction will fail to salvage this patent in the parallel proceedings before the Bundespatentgericht (Federal Patent Court). In my report on the November trial I already expressed doubts that the court was going to interpret the patent narrowly enough to consider it valid, yet broadly enough to hold Apple to infringe.

Both Apple and Samsung have thus far been unsucessful with their assertions against each other in Mannheim, where some of their cases were dismissed and even greater number got stayed, but it would be wrong to blame the court, which in my view acts very responsibly. Other plaintiffs have been more successful in Mannheim. Last May I already explained some of the reasons why a relatively high percentage of Apple patent lawsuits has been stayed in this jurisdiction. Samsung's patents-in-suit fall into two categories: FRAND-pledged standard-essential patents (SEPs) and rather weak non-SEPs. Samsung asserted two non-SEPs against Apple in Germany (both in Mannheim). In December its smiley input method patent suit also got stayed. Samsung's first three SEP assertions against Apple failed because the court did not identify infringements. Last month a Samsung SEP case was stayed as well, but that stay is different from the ones in the two non-SEP cases: the hurdle for a stay (in terms of how likely a patent has to be invalid) is relatively low if injunctive relief is not sought (or requested but unavailable), and Samsung had withdrawn its SEP-based injunction requests (but not its other claims, including non-SEP-based injunction requests and SEP-based prayers for monetary relief) in December.

Despite the greatest respect for Samsung's products and its efforts to defend itself against Apple's patents, I can't say anything positive about its offensive assertions from a business ethics point of view. Its SEP-based push for sales bans against Apple was abusive according to a preliminary ruling (named Statement of Objections) by the European Commission. The smiley patent suit was a nuisance lawsuit (Judge Voss strongly doubted the economic relevance of that case at trial), probably brought only in hopes of scoring a PR win (Samsung wanted to be able to claim that Apple, too, infringes, no matter how irrelevant the patent may be). But from a certain angle the voiceover patent suit is the worst because it's an attempt -- thwarted for the time being, but not dismissed forever -- to hold vision-impaired German Apple customers hostage. There are some situations in which all users may find voiceover useful (for example, while driving), but those who need it the most are the vision-impaired. I'm not finished yet because I do know which two objections this criticism is going to draw:

  1. If Apple allegedy asserts patents on rectangles with rounded corners, why shouldn't Samsung sue over screen-to-speech?

  2. If there's a patent system to protect and incentivize innovation, why shouldn't it also cover the field of accessibility for that matter?

The answer to the first question is simple: it's just propaganda that Apple asserted patents on rectangles with rounded corners (or, as some people mistakenly think, just on rounded corners). I debunked this one in September.

The second question is a more valid point in principle, but I still believe it's the wrong thing to assert an accessibility-related patent in a dispute like this one. Samsung didn't assert this German patent in an effort to protect its investment in accessibility. It elected to use an accessibility-related patent as a tactical weapon. Patent protection and enforcement can be justified in certain scenarios. For example, if there are two companies competing in the market for hearing aids, it's generally legitimate for them to assert accessibility-related patents against each other. I would also support the idea of accessibility patent enforcement in cases of willful infringement, and if Samsung had only requested monetary compensation in this action, it would have made a much better choice than by trying to achieve, through the pursuit of an injunction, the deactivation or (more realistically) degradation of the voiceover functionality Apple provides to its German customers.

In recent weeks I have been contacted by a couple of journalists who report on and care about accessibility issues. One of them told me he's blind. I completely understand why the vision-impaired are concerned when they hear about a lawsuit like this one. Maybe there's a cultural difference here between Asia and the Western hemisphere. In the United States and Europe, people may be more sensitive to this type of issue than in Korea. I don't think Samsung is evil. I really don't. But it should give more thought to the wider implications of its retaliatory actions against Apple.

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