ITC Gives Apple A Gift, Puts Coal in HTC’s Stocking

Earlier this week the International Trade Commission put something nice under Apple’s tree in the form of a ruling that a patent for a method of recognizing and manipulating structured data that Apple had asserted against HTC was both valid and infringed by certain HTC smartphones running Google’s Android operating system. The ITC banned the import of infringing phones beginning in April of 2012, well after the holiday season and well after HTC is likely to have modified the phones to avoid infringement and thus the ban. Apple’s victory is small but not totally hollow as it chips away not only at HTC but at Android generally. More U.S. smartphones are built on the Android platform than any other and the system’s share of the market continues to grow, as does Apple’s, largely at the expense of RIM and Microsoft. While ultimately finding infringement, the ITC decision cut both ways as Apple had asserted a number of other patents against HTC that the ITC found not to be infringed. Predictably, Apple and HTC both declared victory.

On reflection, the Apple v. HTC face-off that is presently being played out in both the courts and the ITC echoes the long ago battles between Apple and Microsoft in which Apple sought to protect the user experience offered by its desktop systems by preventing Microsoft from using graphical user interface elements that were similar to those in Apple’s Mac OS (then Mac OS 7).  In that case Apple lacked applicable patents and brought claims of copyright infringement. In reaching its decision, the court struggled to distinguish the ideas underlying the GUI (which are not protectable by copyright) from the expression of the those ideas (which are) and ultimately found that, “Apple cannot get patent-like protection for the idea of a graphical user interface, or the idea of a desktop metaphor [under copyright law]…” 35 F.3d 1435, 1443 (9th Cir. 1994). Ideas are, however, protectable to a great extent under patent law and Apple, apparently learning from its past mistakes, has become much more savvy about using patents to protect its user experience.

Figure 7 from US Patent 5,946,647

Figure 7 from US Patent 5,946,647

For those interested, the infringed patent was number 5,946,647 for a “System And Method For Performing An Action On A Structure In Computer-Generated Data.” Essentially the patent is for a system of detecting structured data within an otherwise unstructured document and identifying actions that may be performed on the particular identified data structure. For example, as illustrated in the Figure 7 of the ‘647 patent (at right), the system might identify a phone number (structured as, for example, (nnn)nnn-nnn) in an email  message and identify storing the number in an address book as a potential action that can be carried out on phone numbers. Once the system identified potential actions to take on a structured data element, the user can select a desired action by clicking on an onscreen menu. The system might also identify that the number could be dialed and present users with that option as well, although the patent application was filed in 1996 and is written in the context of a “computer system” rather than a mobile device so its unlikely that Apple engineers foresaw their invention’s use in mobile phones. In 1996 Motorola’s StarTAC was the hottest phone on the market, texting was in its infancy (the StarTac couldn’t send texts at that time) and down-loadable ring tones were two years away (much less down-loadable apps). The patented technology was first deployed by Apple in Mac OS 8 which was released in 1997, although today’s phones are probably as powerful as 1996’s typical Mac desktop computer system.  The innovation seems an obvious convenience for phone users but was apparently novel at the time and in any event HTC’s engineers have, as of the time of this writing, already announced that they’ve found a workaround so users will not be impacted.

This is but one skirmish in a much larger and ongoing battle between not just Apple and HTC but also just about every other mobile phone maker. For its part, Google stands ready to defend Android although Andy Rubin, Google’s Senior VP of Mobile, believes that the ruling will lead to a “quick path to settling” the patent claims currently targeting Android. We will have to wait and see if that proves true in 2012.