Apple Challenged Over Old Xerox UI Patent

AppleInsider's Aidan Malley broke the story over the weekend that portfolio licensing company IP Innovation, LLC has filed suit against Apple, Inc. in (where else?) Marshall, Texas, claiming to defend a graphical technique where multiple workspaces are divided into frames, between which the user can switch devices like tabs.

[Editor's Note: IP Innovation, LLC is not to be confused with IP Innovations, LLC (plural), a patent search services firm for prospective patent filers, based in Washington, DC.]

The single patent in question, #5,072,412, for "User interface with multiple workspaces for sharing display system objects," was filed in 1987 by various Xerox researchers, and granted in 1991.

The graphical era was already well under way by this time, although this patent was apparently intended to give the manufacturer of STAR workstations an on-screen tool for collecting multiple complete workspaces together under a single row of tabs. The description of such a system in the patent is so replete and generic that it could apply to a wide array of visual tools, so it isn't specifically stuck on the notion of tabs.

As AppleInsider reported, IP Innovation seeks a judgment of over $20 million, which would appear to fall under the category of treble damages - relating to a clause in federal patent infringement law that awards plaintiffs three times the amount of the basic infringement amount. Firms such as IP Innovation may be filing such claims now, in advance of landmark federal legislation some say is likely to pass this year, whose draft language would eliminate the treble damages provision.

IP Innovation is no newcomer to the patent litigation or settlement field. In August 2005, it reached a major settlement with Sony over a series of patents related to noise filtering for both audio and video.

That same year, it settled with five providers of online courseware, including market leader Thomson Learning, over patents related to the display of graphical course material in a window with hyperlinks. But there were eight parties to that suit, three of whom -- eCollege, DigitalThink, and Docent -- chose to fight it out and let a judge decide.

That November, a district court ruled the three firms did not infringe upon the defended patent after all, after having taken apart the patent's definition of a hyperlink and concluded it actually didn't meet the three companies' implementations.

The patent language made it appear that the hyperlink code itself was translated to the screen in a "human-readable font," as if the A tags in HTML hyperlinks were visible. Since the three defendants used HTML, and since their A tags were invisible to the user, the court determined the description by the patent didn't apply. Had Thomson recognized this flaw, it might have avoided paying that unspecified amount.

Apple is, of course, no stranger to IP disputes over visual content of operating systems. In 1989, the company fought Microsoft and Digital Research valiantly over what Apple claimed to be their misappropriation of Apple's graphical constructs, such as the trash can icon for deleting files.

I and several other reporters at the time noted that Xerox PARC was actually the first to use such icons in that fashion, though at a time before the US patent database was searchable online, it appeared that Xerox had never filed claims to that effect. As it turned out, it had, and ironically this is one of them, although the filing was not actually granted until 1991.

Exactly how this 1991 Xerox PARC patent changed hands to eventually wind up in the IP Innovation portfolio, remains unknown.

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