Sunday, December 25, 2011

The meaning of Apple's '647 patent

On December 19th the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) issued its final determination on Apple's claims against HTC of Taiwan, finding that HTC violated Section 337 of the Tariff Act by selling Android phones containing a technology that infringed a patent held by Apple. Section 337 enables the ITC to block importation into the US of foreign products that unfairly compete with domestic products, and infringing a valid US patent is considered such an unfair practice. Recently Section 337 investigations are being used more and more as faster and lower cost alternatives to enforcing US patents against foreign entities through litigation in district courts.

Of the 10 patents originally claimed by Apple to be infringed, the ITC rejected all but two in an earlier ruling, and in the final determination reduced this further to a single patent. The two patents in question are 5,946,647 entitled System and Method for Performing an Action on a Structure in Computer-Generated Data (filed Feb. 1 1996 and granted Aug. 31 1999) and 6,343,263 entitled Real-time Signal Processing System for Serially Transmitted Data (filed Aug. 2 1994 and granted Jan. 29, 2002). The ITC found that HTC did not infringe the '263 patent that protects the use of a Hardware Abstraction Layer to isolate real-time code from architectural details of a specific DSP.

The '647 patent discloses a system wherein a computer detects structures in data (such as text data, but possibly digitized sounds or images), highlights these structures via a user interface, and enables the user to select a desired action to perform. Apple's complaint to the ITC gives as an example of infringement the detection and highlighting of a phone number (e.g., in a received SMS) and enabling the user to click to call that number.

I have seen in blogs and forums many completely erroneous statements about what this patent actually means. People have claimed that '647 can't be valid, as hyperlinks or regular expression matching or SQL queries clearly predate the filing. However, a careful reading of the '647 patent shows that it does not claim to cover such obviously prior art. The following analysis is based on the text of the patent and on documents openly available on the web, and should not be considered legal advice.

After eliminating text required for patent validity (an input device, an output device, memory, and a CPU) the invention of '647 has three essential elements. First, an analyzer server parses the input data looking for patterns (called "structures"). Second, via an API the user-interface receives notice of the detected structures and possible actions for each one; displays the detected structures to the user; offers the user a list of actions that can be performed for each structure; and receives the user's selection. Third, an action processor performs the user's selected action (possibly launching new applications). The text of the '647 patent gives as an example the regular expression parsing of an email to find phone numbers, postal addresses, zip-codes, email addresses, and dates, and enabling the user to call a phone number, enter addresses into a contact list, send a fax to a number, draft an email, and similar actions.

Of course plain hyperlinks that are manually inserted into HTML are not covered by this patent since they are not automatically detected by an analyzer. A regular expression engine can potentially be used as an analyzer (although not necessarily by all embodiments as the patent mentions neural networks matching patterns in sounds and images) but is not claimed. The automatic parsing of a document for a list of patterns without offering a list of actions to a user is also not protected; indeed the Rufus file-type classifier is cited as prior art. Even the use of a regular expression engine to parse text and insert hyperlinks into a document is considered prior art, as the application references the Myrmidon text-to-html converter. It is possible that an editor or IDE that offers possible completions of text being typed would be considered infringing, depending on how broadly the patent's concept of input device is interpreted.

The three elements of the '647 patent are all present in many applications and devices used today. Users of Microsoft's Outlook are familiar with its automatic hyperlinking of email addresses and URLs in received messages. My old 2004 Sony-Ericsson K700 2G phone automatically highlights phone numbers in SMSes enabling single-click calling. However, Apple has targeted a very specific infringement - Android's Linkify class. Linkify enables the definition of a list of regular expression patterns to be detected, and a corresponding list of schemes, i.e., actions the user can select to be executed. It even comes with a few pre-defined patterns - email addresses, postal addresses, phone numbers, and URLs - which are almost precisely the examples given in the '647 patent.

While Apple's claims of infringement of '647 may be selective, they are not frivolous. In order to invalidate '647 the Android community would need to find publication of all three essential elements before 1996. I am sure that they have tried.

Removal of the Linkify feature from Android phones will put them at a definite ease-of-use disadvantage in comparison with the iPhone. And HTC has been given until April 19th 2012 to do just that.