Apple’s Latest China IP Challenge Not a Likely Threat

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Apple has apparently been sued again, and this time it’s a patent dispute involving the FaceTime application. This one should probably be ignored completely for the time being, but since I’ve been contacted by a couple members of the press already, I thought a quickie post would be worthwhile.

The Facts: Some guy from Taiwan recently sued Apple, actually several related entities, in Zhenjiang Intermediate Court. The court accepted the case on July 31 and is waiting for Apple’s response.

The underlying IP is a utility model patent filed in 2003 (issued in 2004) by a company called Huayi Technology, but it was subsequently transferred to the plaintiff in April of this year. According to the sparse information out on this, the plaintiff claims individual responsibility for the innovation that was patented, so it’s not clear just who Huayi is or what the relationship is between that company and the plaintiff.

The technology in dispute is Apple’s FaceTime application, which allows for video calling, similar to one of the features of Skype. FaceTime was released in September, 2010.

Sources: This Time, Apple’s FaceTime Got Sued!苹果再遭专利起诉 Facetime盗用他人技术.

So is it time to panic? Hardly. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1. This is a utility model patent, not an invention patent. Therefore it was not subject to substantive review at the time it was granted. That means it may not, if challenged, meet patentability standards such as novelty. Utility models are comparatively weak patents, and we don’t know whether this one represents a real inventive step or is useless junk.

2. We have no idea whether the scope of this patent matches up with FaceTime or not. There may be no overlap at all, so unless someone who is familiar with FaceTime would like to pull the utility model and do a quick analysis, speculating on the merits would be rather fruitless.

3. Why was this case filed in Zhenjiang? I had to crack open an atlas to find out where the heck that city is. Turns out to be in Jiangsu, just east of Nanjing. It is on the river and has about 2.6 million people, which is not at all large for Chinese cities. Very strange place to file a case against a multinational, particularly when the underlying dispute concerns a patent. The obvious place to file would be Shanghai, for a variety of reasons. Big red flag for me, and although I really have no idea why this case is in Zhenjiang, I would love to know if the plaintiff has any personal connections in that city. If you know what I mean.

4. The timing of the patent transfer is a bit odd. Might be completely above board, but consider that the IP was transferred to this guy in April, then he turns around and files a suit against Apple three months later. Something to think about.

5. Utility model patents have a protection period of ten years. The patent is this case is set to expire in the near future. Again, some odd timing issues here.

6. The big timing issue, of course, is all the publicity over the Proview iPad trademark case. Was this case filed before the settlement was announced? During the Proview dispute? Was the decision to file related in any way? No way to tell, but the question is hanging out there.

7. Finally, when was the last time you saw one of these lone inventor types go after a huge multinational tech company and succeed? I’m sure it has happened before, but not too often. You hear about these cases every once in a while, but we never seem to get an announcement that Farmer Zhou has actually won his patent case against IBM or Huawei or whoever and scored a 100 million RMB judgment. Could be a lot of reasons for that, but my bet is that most of these disputes are crap.

This one looks pretty weird to me as well, and chances are it will never go anywhere. But who knows what those legendary patent judges in Zhenjiang might do with this?