Have you watched the All Things Digital interview with Tim Cook? The interview was published online this past week and is one that I highly recommend for those who keep up with Apple news. Tim Cook was questioned about the patent wars, particularly Apple’s wars with Samsung (Cook is the CEO). Tim Cook admitted in the interview that there are lots of companies suing Apple at the moment (this is never a good thing), but was questioned in particular about Apple’s position regarding the lawsuits. These are the words of Tim Cook:
“When you look at those [lawsuits, blog writer’s insertion], the vast majority of those are on standards-essential patents.”
Standards-essential patents, as I explained in a recent post, consist of licenses to smartphone features such as design and style that are basic to smartphones today. If the majority of lawsuits against Apple are based on standard features and components, then Cook is right: no one should go to court on standards-essential patents. However, Tim Cook does not say anything else about the “minority” of cases against Apple; this is what I wanted him to address.
Are there cases in which Apple is being sued for non-standards-essential patents? I believe so. One case in point that confirms a non-standards-essential lawsuit concerns the company Noise Free. Noise Free filed a lawsuit recently against the Apple Corporation because the company is convinced Apple stole its noise-cancelling technology, sold it to a rival group (Audience), then gave profits to Audience—profits that should have gone to Noise Free. Noise-cancelling technology is not a standard feature of smartphones today, although we cherish the thought of having the sound of music in our headphones to be as clear as possible. To use the phrase of one of the hosts who talked with Tim Cook in his All Things Digital interview, there are some companies out there that have produced a “painting” and feel as though Apple has “ripped them off.”
Greg Hughes would be in this category if he knew his need for a patent and copyright before taking his idea to the Apple Corporation. Wi-Fi and Sync were once two different operations; his combination of these two applications made his WiFiSync a non-standards-essential feature that would have led to a lawsuit/injunction (if he had owned a patent at the time).
What about Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung? When the Cupertino, California company took Samsung to court before Judge Lucy Koh, Apple claimed that Samsung copied its designs, including “slide to unlock” as well as voice and search functionality. “Slide to unlock” bears a distinct name placed upon the feature by Apple, but the operation itself is standards-essential (contrary Apple). If touchscreens are standards-essential (and they are today), then what else could a person do to a screen if he or she does not touch it and swipe it? Is it not called a touchscreen for a reason, to allow you to touch the screen when you want to select an operation or item? What does the concept of touch look like on a screen? It appears as in the form of taps and swipes (or “dots” and “lines”). Is it not interesting, however, that Tim Cook claims that one company cannot take another to court for standards-essential features, while he and Apple take Samsung to court for taps and swipes on smartphone screens?
Judge Richard Posner confirmed some time ago that Apple often sues other companies for ownership of basic smartphone features. Regarding the swipe operation, Posner said that Apple made the argument in its deposition against Google some time ago that “a tap is a zero-length swipe.” The interesting phrase in the statement is “a zero-length swipe.” How can this be logical when “zero” indicates nothingness? The tap itself is a basic way that humans interact with touchscreens. How else can humans interact with touchscreens if simple screen actions such as taps and swipes become exclusively Apple’s? It seems then, that Apple has filed a lawsuit that contradicts Tim Cook’s words: the company has sued Samsung on the basis of “standards-essential patents,” something that Tim Cook said Apple has decided against.
Tim Cook understands the philosophy of copyright patents when he says that companies must distinguish between standards-essential and non-standards-essential patents; where he errs, however, is in his assumption that Apple is being sued over standards-essential patents. I do not find it believable that noise-cancelling technology is standards-essential.