Saturday, December 7, 2019

BlackBerry wins German patent injunctions against Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram over four (most likely invalid!) software patents

Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), a Munich-based newspaper, reported yesterday evening on a set of Germany-wide patent injunctions that BlackBerry--once a smartphone maker, now basically a patent troll--just obtained against Facebook and its WhatsApp and Instagram subsidiaries over a total of four different patents covering chat features.

The injunction is provisionally enforceable. If BlackBerry posts a bond or makes a deposit, it can enforce the injunctions at this stage, though Facebook can appeal to the Munich Higher Regional Court and is, in parallel, challenging the validity of those patents before the Federal Patent Court of Germany. But Facebook has already told the media that the affected services--Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram--wouldn't go out of service in Germany: workarounds have been prepared, so the related features would have to be removed.

BlackBerry sued Facebook (with a focus on Facebook Messenger rather than the social media stream) and those two subsidiaries over five different patents, which I listed earlier this year and will list again further below.

The Munich I Regional Court has now handed down injunctions over four of the five patents. These are the five BlackBerry patents-in-suit, some of which they claim to be infringed by only one or two of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, and some of which they claim are infringed by all three (note that the injunctions BlackBerry just won relate to patents #1, #2, #3, and #5 on the list, but not #4, as explained further below):

  1. EP1734728 on a "method and apparatus for switching between concurrent messaging sessions" (first hearing held on 01/10/2019)

    accused functionality: showing two chat histories in parallel

  2. EP1633114 on a "system and method for maintaining on a handheld electronic device information that is substantially current and is readily available to a user" (first hearing held on 01/17/2019)

    accused functionality: automatically identifying user profiles containing partly identical data

  3. EP1746790 on a "method of sharing an Instant Messaging history" (I attended and reported on the related first hearing)

    accused functionality: sharing messages from the chat history

  4. EP1540495 on a "method and system for displaying group chat sessions on wireless mobile terminals" (first hearing: 02/28/2019)

    accused functionality: displaying chat history while text is being edited

  5. EP2339799 on an "IM contact list entry as a game in progress designate" (first hearing: 02/28/2019)

    accused functionality: chatting during gameplay

BlackBerry has so far prevailed on all of them but the fourth one ("method and system for displaying group chat sessions on wireless mobile terminals"), over which even the Munich court had sufficient validity doubts that BlackBerry felt forced to further narrow the claims during trial. In that case, no immediate decision was possible (for due process reasons), and instead, there will be another trial over that one on March 12, 2020. If BlackBerry persuades the court not to stay, then it may win again.

I am stunned that the court didn't stay all five cases over serious doubts concerning the validity of those patents. When I looked at the claims of the patents-in-suit earlier this year, I quickly concluded that they'd all be highly likely to be annulled by the Federal Patent Court of Germany (which also happens to be based in Munich, which is sort of the Capital of the Patent Movement, at least for Europe). That's partly because software as such isn't patent-eligible in Europe. While the courts rarely ever invalidate a patent as a whole on that basis, they do exclude any non-technical features from their novelty and non-obviousness analysis--and it's hard to see how anything novel or inventive could be found in those patent claims that isn't just software stuff without a technical effect. I already operated a chat service (as part of an online gaming network) in the 1990s and wrote an IRC client in 2000, so I know a lot of the prior art from hands-on experience.

What I have been able to find out is that BlackBerry, represented by Quinn Emanuel (a great firm that has not so great clients at times), had to narrow multiple patent claims-in-suit during the infringement proceedings just to address the court's concerns over non-novelty. There are two problem with German patent infringement courts in the context to grant or deny a stay pending a nullity action. First, they apply an unreasonably high standard (and the "guru" from the Dusseldorf appeals court who has been promoting that high standard for many years more aggressively and fanatically than anyone else recently made dozens of employees of a small company lose their jobs--with Quinn Emanuel again on the enforcing side--over a patent subsequently held invalid). Second--though in many cases that's even more important than the standard--they take only non-novelty (anticipation) arguments seriously and largely refuse to consider obviousness contentions (lack of inventive step) for no good reason (if they can rule on infringement without appointing expert witnesses, they certainly could also assess the existence of absence of an inventive step, but they just don't want to).

The Munich I Regional Court orders stays in only about 10% of all cases, and I have the impression the number is far below 10% for this year. That's a huge problem considering that the vast majority of all patents in this industry turn out invalid once they're challenged before the Federal Patent Court. In fact, not a single one of all the patents asserted in the cases I covered in detail survived a nullity trial (but many never reached that point due to earlier settlements).

I hope Facebook will keep on fighting. They do appear to be determined not to feed the troll. By striking down these patents, even if it takes years, they can teach the German patent judiciary--except for Mannheim, where you find by far the most responsible German patent infringement court--an important lesson. The federal government is drafting a reform bill, and reform is needed so badly that it will likely be enacted even before Facebook's nullity actions against BlackBerry are resolved.

If your company, too, would like to push for patent injunction reform in Germany, please contact me at I'm already in touch with many companies from a variety of industries--and of all sizes--who have enough of this crap resulting from a broken system, and as a former European Campaigner of the Year (2005; an award I won against Bono and which went to a pope and to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in other years) I know a thing or two about patent legislation. I'm convinced a more eBay v. MercExchange-like regime in Germany is achievable, and far more cases than now should get stayed in the future.

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