Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Patent licensing firm K.Mizra suing Pokémon GO maker Niantic (Google/Nintendo) over cloud architecture patent: Munich trial scheduled for July

The Landgericht München I (Munich I Regional Court) has informed me of a pair of patent infringement cases by U.S.-based patent licensing firm K.Mizra against Pokémon GO maker Niantic, a Google-Nintendo joint venture. The case numbers are 7 O 13977/21 and 7 O 10368/21 (Seventh Civil Chamber; Presiding Judge: Dr. Matthias Zigann), and the patent-in-suit is EP2433414 on "servers for device identification services."

The two cases will be heard on July 14. Counterintuitively, there is no prayer for injunctive relief in those cases, though I remember that Nokia didn't initially request an injunction against Daimler, but later amended its complaints accordingly. In German patent infringement proceedings, plaintiffs are even free to seek additional remedies during the appellate proceedings (as German appeals are rather broad in scope).

The name of the game is the claim--and claim 1 is usually the broadest one. This is what it covers (or just click here to skip the claim language):

A system for identifying proximate devices arranged for detecting a sensory identifier and transmitting request messages comprising representations of the detected sensory identifier, the system comprising:

  • means for correlating representations of the detected sensory identifiers from the request messages received from the devices so as to match two or more of those devices, and

  • means for carrying out an application involving devices that have been matched by said means for correlating representations,

wherein said means for correlating are at least one correlation server and said means for carrying out the application are at least one application server, the at least one correlation server and the at least one application server being distinct servers,

wherein the proximate devices are arranged to include, in the request messages, an indication of an application to be executed, the at least one correlation server being configured to compare the applications indicated by the request messages, and causing a transmitter to transmit the match message based on the match to an application server identified by the matching indications of the application in the matched request messages.

The TL;DR is that there are different types of servers,

  • with one type having the task of identifying users who are in the same vicinity and

  • the other providing the actual application that those geographically close users are using--and "sensory identifiers" (meaning something you can see, hear, smell...) are used to figure out whether users are really next to each other.

Pokémon GO was a blockbuster from the outset. A few years ago, Niantic added a "Buddy Adventure" feature. Here's a YouTube video from Santa Monica that wonders whether this is "[t]he FUTURE of Pokémon GO" and in which you can see the use of QR codes (such as on the title picture but also in the video, especially around 8m15s):

The user who initiates a multiplayer session then shows the QR code to others who must scan the code with their phones to join. The QR code is an imagine, so it undoubtedly represents a sensory identifier.

A quick Google search for information Pokémon GO's cloud architecture leads to--guess what--a Google blog post, "How Pokémon GO scales to millions of requests?"

When I became involved with patent policy in 2004 as a campaigner opposing the proposed EU directive on computer-implemented inventions (aka Software Patents Directive), I was an adviser to an open-source software maker (MySQL) and frequently raised the concern that open-source program code was available for inspection by patent holders looking to identify potential infringements. Reverse engineering often works as well, but it takes a lot more effort. Generally speaking, software makers can be too open for their own good if they reveal the inner workings of their products. Here, the defendant didn't open-source Pokémon GO in its entirety, but disclosed a whole lot of information in an interview published on a Google website. That wealth of information would normally require pretrial discovery in the United States. It may have been unwise to reveal so much. Also, Google's Kubernetes Engine, which is mentioned in that Google interview, is a piece of open-source software.

It's been more than nine years since I attended a Munich trial--before the same division, Presiding Judge Dr. Zigann's Seventh Civil Chamber--involving Google's infrastructure: Microsoft was asserting a patent against Google Maps and on the winning track with respect to infringement, but the patent was later deemed invalid by the Federal Patent Court. The Google Maps case raised a question of first impression: whether a cloud service that is partially provided by servers located outside of Germany can infringe the German part of a European patent. There have since been various German court rulings that have developed a certain standard for what constitutes an infringement in such setups.

Pokémon GO was a smash hit from the moment it launched and had to scale its server infrastructure to huge numbers of concurrent users more quickly than any previous game. What Google did was--and still is--admirable. I remember how at the height of the Pokémon GO frenzy there were groups of children running around trying to catch Pokémons. It's an augmented-reality game, and when I tried it out, I caught a first Pokémon on my desk and the second one in the garden. However, there was one aspect of it that I found highly objectionable (I didn't experience it myself but read about it): the random generator that decides where to place those Pokémons sometimes picked places like graveyards or private properties, resulting in trespassing or at least in inappropriate behavior. I believe it was highly irresponsible and reckless on Niantic's part not to ensure that Pokémons would be found in public spaces only.

Now Pokémon GO is facing what could be a serious and costly patent infringement problem. Google's go-to law firm for defending against patent lawsuits is Quinn Emanuel. The daughter of John Quinn (the "Quinn" in "Quinn Emanuel"), Megan Quinn, joined Niantic's board in late 2017 according to Wikipedia.

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