Google vs. Apple and 3 Other Past High-Profile IP Patent Violation Cases

It looks like Apple and Google will be heading back to the international trade commission now that a U.S. appeals court has ruled that Apple should be allowed to renew its two patent violation claims against Google's Motorola. The ongoing legal fight between Google and Apple has been watched closely, and will undoubtedly be one of the most famous high-tech intellectual property battles in recent history. However, these types of drawn-out, bare-knuckles brawls are not new to the high tech industry, and as a homage to the Google/Apple scuffle, I thought it might be interesting to reflect back on three high-profile IP cases from the past.

The Graphical User Interface (Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corporation)

Apple is no stranger to the courtroom -- in 1988, Apple Computers filed a lawsuit seeking to stop Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard from selling computers with graphical user interfaces similar to Apple's LISA computer and its Macintosh OS. Apple did actually license Microsoft to use many of the 189 individual elements they claimed were taken, but Microsoft's decision to add features to its own OS that closely mirrored the Macintosh OS was what lead to the six-year long court battle. Apple tried to claim that the 'look and feel' of Microsoft's OS should be the focus of the copyright infringement, but the court disagreed, and instead focused on the individual elements of the GUI, thereby avoiding setting a precedent for 'look and feel' copyright claims and making analytical dissection the basis for UI cases. Apple lost the case as the court felt all of the similarities sprung from licensing or obvious expression, though the bad blood between the two companies did not last long -- by 1997, they had agreed to work together and entered into a patent cross-licensing agreement.

Digital Video Recording (TiVo Inc. v. EchoStar Corp.)

TiVo filed a lawsuit against EchoStar Corp, a company closely affiliated with Dish Network, in 2004, claiming that EchoStar's digital video recording boxes infringed on TiVo's patent for 'A Multimedia Time-Warping System.' Essentially, TiVo had a system whereby their boxes could parse real-time metadata for whatever show was being watched, allowing the user to fast-forward, rewind, pause, index, and speed up their shows. EchoStar lost the case and the appeal, and were forced to re-design their DVR, which they did by replacing the original parsing feature with one that used statistical estimation and an index-less system. TiVo, however, felt that this was not different enough from its own technology, and that EchoStar should be held in contempt. When judging for contempt, courts typically relied on a test established in 1985 called a KSM test, which determines whether or not there was a colorable difference between the old product and the redesign. After failing this test, EchoStar pushed for a rehearing en banc. In this case, the court actually determined the KSM test was unworkable and introduced a new precedent for determining if an infringer can be held in contempt. The new test is actually more rigorous, and requires the patent-holder to point to the specific elements of the re-design that still infringe on the same patent. EchoStar lost again, and eventually settled with TiVo, paying $500 Million for the rights to license TiVo's technology, but the precedent will certainly affect future contempt hearings.

ENIAC (Honeywell v. Sperry Rand)

ENIAC was the world's first general-purpose computer, originally being completed in 1946. But, as with nearly all matters high-tech, it was the subject of patent and intellectual property controversy. ENIAC was granted its patent in 1964, nearly 17 years after the original patent file date in 1947, largely due to unresolved court cases and other bits of interference. Over those 17 years, mergers and acquisitions resulted in that patent being granted to Sperry Rand, which intended to use the patent to collect royalties on all digital computers being sold at the time. This led to them becoming embroiled in collections cases, and in 1967 Honeywell filed a suit against Sperry, alleging antitrust violations and unjustified claims. After a lengthy trial, the judge ruled that the computer was in the public domain and the patent was invalid based on two points. The first was that ENIAC was derived from a special-purpose computer built by Atanasoff in the 1930's. The second was that von Neumann, a man who consulted for the ENIAC project, had published notes, and thus disclosed details of the ENIAC, before the patent was filed. At the end of this case the computer was officially in the public domain, keeping Sperry from collecting royalties and allowing computer companies to continue to innovate and sell their own versions of the computer.

Apple and Google are not the first companies to duke it out over the rights to high-tech patents, and they certainly won't be the last. Pushing the boundaries of technology is all about innovation, and we've seen an unprecedented boom in innovative technology over the past fifty years. Though this type of change inevitably spurs lawsuits, it is still amazing to look back and see what we've accomplished in just a few decades.