Print 114 comment(s) - last by StoveMeister.. on Jun 14 at 3:02 AM

  (Source: Apple)
The Ultrabook category could potentially be killed off or diminished by Apple lawsuits

[Update: Apple's patent appears invalid due to prior art -- Sony Corp. (TYO:6758) released a teardrop laptop in 2004, the Sony VAIO X505.]

Apple, Inc. (AAPL) has brought chaos to the smartphone market, with a slew of lawsuits which essentially seek to ban all of its top smartphone competitors products.  According to Apple, all of its competitors are ripping off its technology.

Now Apple may be preparing to bring that same brand of litigious chaos to the world of personal computer, thanks to its victory in convinced the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to allow it to patent the design of its MacBook Air (MBA) case.  Apple was granted U.S. Design Patent D661,296 this week.

I. Nearly Every Ultrabook is in Violation

Very clever in its working, Apple's new intellectual property jewel is carefully crafted to place nearly every one of its competitors designs in violation, via making its claim very general and wide.

The patent covers claims exclusive ownership to thin teardrop/wedge-shaped notebook computers.  At first glance many of its competitors Ultrabooks would appear to be in violation of this patent.  In other words, with this patent, Apple appears to be well along the way to having the legal firepower necessary to obtain a ban all competitors lightweight laptops.

Among them:

Samsung's Series 5 Ultrabook Convertible

Samsung Series 5

ASUSTek Computer Inc.'s (TPE:2357) Transformer Book

Acer, Inc.'s (TPE:2353) Aspire S7 Series

Acer Aspire S7
[Image Source: Pocket Lint]

Hewlet Packard Comp.'s (HPQ) Spectre XT
Spectre XT black
Dell, Inc. (DELL) XPS 13

II. Patenting Fundamental Physics 

There's a reason why all of these laptops are teardrop and/or wedge shaped.  Given the size of USB ports and the size necessary for the hinge, there's no real other possible design that would allow these laptops to achieve the kind of thiness and light weight that the Ultrabook spec demands.

Now one thought might be that the USPTO merely granted Apple a narrow patent on its MacBook Air design.  But Apple's patent makes it explicitly clear that it's claiming a very wide exclusive rights to produce thin, wedge shaped laptops.  It says that size, hinge design, etc. are irrelevant.  It says that the back can have "any contour or shape" and still infringe.

Apple patent
Apple's patent is very tricking in its claim, designed to place nearly every ultrabook design on the market in infringement. [Image Source: USPTO via The Verge]

In other words, if the USPTO read the patent, they had to have recognized exactly how wide a design ownership they were granting Apple.

III. What's Next?

A couple important things to bear in mind.  Apple hasn't sued anybody -- yet.  But it now has the ammo to do so, and could potentially gain a monopoly on ultrathin notebooks, if it chooses to pursue lawsuits against all of its computer making rivals.  HP has already pledged to defend its design against potential litigation.

Apple could be fearful of the damage to its reputation that requesting a ban on all rival Ultrabook designs might have.  But it has shown little such fears in the smartphone market, so image may not be enough to convince Apple to avoid seeking bans.

Likewise, fundamental physics (hinge design) and universal standards (USB port size) seem to dictate no way around Apple's design, hence the patent seems highly questionable.  But for better or worse the USPTO has decided that Apple should have it.

No one is questioning that Apple pioneered the Ultrathin category with its MacBook Air.  While Dell's Envy launched not long after, it featured a more traditional flat design and hence was more constrained in size, weight, and specs.  But the question is whether Apple gets to have a monopoly because it got their first and because the laws of physics (and standards) dictate few alternatives.  That may be an issue that is pressed in court, if Apple's swelling legal team and history of looking to litigate rather than compete are any indication.

Update 1 June 7, 2012:

Well if Apple does sue anyone, it will have a tough case to make.  Get a load of Sony's VAIO X505 launched in 2004.  Turns out Apple wasn't even the first to pioneer this market -- Sony was the first (to our knowledge) ultrathin maker.

Sony's design clearly is in violation of Apple's patent -- but it came first.  That means Apple's appears highly likely to invalid.  In a sense, its wideness -- a gambit to ensure everyone infringes, may prove its downfall.

Sony Vaio X505
[Image Source: Notebook Review]
Sony Vaio X505
[Image Source: Image Shack]

It should be interesting to see how this plays out, if this goes to court.

Source: USPTO via SBNation [PDF]

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RE: Patent Office
By RicheemxX on 6/7/2012 3:07:24 PM , Rating: 5
My understanding is that the idiots at the patent office grant patents they know are questionable and likely not valid and figure it is up to the court system to decide on them. I don't think they research design characteristics, functionality or anything else. They only check to see if there is a prior patent, wait for anyone to challenge the patent and if not then finally issue said patent.

The entire system is bass-ackwards and completely broke!

As mentioned this is totally invalid since sony had prior art, I even think their were laptops with these designs prior to that one from sony. But its going to be up to a judge to invalidate the patent.

RE: Patent Office
By nafhan on 6/7/2012 3:13:22 PM , Rating: 3
If this is what's going on, patenting every f-ing thing you possibly can in order to bleed your competitors dry in court, could be a valid business strategy for a company with lots of money and no real plan on what to do with it.

I'm looking forward to seeing someone explain how this is good for the consumer.

RE: Patent Office
By joex444 on 6/7/2012 3:39:07 PM , Rating: 2
There are, in fact, companies that basically do this. They're called "patent trolls."

RE: Patent Office
By JasonMick on 6/7/2012 4:20:11 PM , Rating: 5
There are, in fact, companies that basically do this. They're called "patent trolls."
It's looking a lot like Apple is joining this crowd.

Its basic argument is that it can't compete so it files for a ridiculous number of patents and trademarks, many of which are on things that shouldn't be patentable or trademarkable (like icons, or slide to unlock) or that were already on the market and/or patented (e.g. data tapping, slide to unlock, touch screen designs, wedge laptop designs, etc.).

It's a productive troll, but it's a troll nonetheless by its actions, arguably.

It's sad because the iPhone 4S is a very solid little phone. It's way to small for my taste, but I could see a girl with smaller fingers find it great. Granted the interface looks ancient and dated compared to Android ICS, and Windows Phone (esp.), but Apple could still compete on the merits of the case design, large app catalog, and strong core apps.

The iPad is still one of the best tablets out there.

But when Apple refuses to compete and instead opts to sue people, anyone who appreciates free choice in the market, will likely have a tough time convincing themselves to buy an iPad and iPhone. Apple could be a competitor with its relatively solid products -- instead it chooses to be a troll.

It doesn't need to sue people -- it's the world's most profitable company. But I fear greed is turning Apple into the mother of all patent trolls, slowly but surely.

RE: Patent Office
By WalksTheWalk on 6/7/2012 5:31:01 PM , Rating: 4
Yes, Apple doesn't need to do this. They are in a strong position and making record profits. This smacks of fear to me.

I think the absolute fear of what happened with Microsoft and Windows in the 80's and 90's via open licensing to third parties is burned into their DNA at this point.

RE: Patent Office
By testerguy on 6/8/12, Rating: -1
RE: Patent Office
By Cheesew1z69 on 6/8/2012 8:26:18 AM , Rating: 1
If they had ACTUALLY invented it. Nothing more to say. Get your head out of your ass, seriously.

RE: Patent Office
By Cheesew1z69 on 6/8/2012 8:28:39 AM , Rating: 1
you need to seriously realise how much of a biased idiot you sound.
You are the last one who needs to talk about being a biased idiot. Try taking your own advice. Douchebag.

RE: Patent Office
By retrospooty on 6/8/2012 11:35:19 AM , Rating: 2
LOL... So True. If ever there was a more fitting pot v kettle cliche than this guy.

[Testerguy] I am not biased at all. I just created an ID at AT/DT for the sole purpose to defend every move Apple makes and every product they release. I do this because Apple is superior in all ways and its products are better than the competition in all ways and everyone should know this. As you can clearly see, its not a bias it just has to be done.

RE: Patent Office
By WalksTheWalk on 6/8/2012 12:16:21 PM , Rating: 2
The thing is Apple is competing very, very well with their products versus the Ultrabooks, Android, whatever.

The fact that they are doing this is just more evidence of pure patent trolling and anti-competitive behavior, using their dollar power.

I can understand that they would want to file these kinds of ridiculous patents to protect themselves legally, since the US patent system is broken, but to start suing for product embargoes and blocking free trade of reasonable competitors is absurd.

RE: Patent Office
By Tony Swash on 6/8/12, Rating: -1
RE: Patent Office
By themaster08 on 6/8/2012 2:04:18 PM , Rating: 3
You'd better find that time machine and warn Sony that they're infringing on Apple's design patents that will come years later.

The problem isn't "copying". The problem is Apple's frivolous, generic patents of simple shapes that have oodles of prior art.

The reason they're not patented by other companies before Apple is likely due to the fact that other companies don't see such basic shapes as patent worthy. Apple patenting first != first to design.

RE: Patent Office
By Cheesew1z69 on 6/8/2012 8:11:48 PM , Rating: 2
The problem is Apple's frivolous, generic patents of simple shapes that have oodles of prior art.
You will never get Tony DoucheBag to understand this.

RE: Patent Office
By tim851 on 6/9/2012 6:53:41 AM , Rating: 2
Granted the interface looks ancient and dated compared to Android ICS, and Windows Phone (esp.)

I have a Galaxy Nexus. And love it. I'm not an iOS fanatic - but how the hell does iOS look "ancient and dated"?

Android looks pretty much the same, with some widgets thrown in (+) but a less streamlined (-) and less consistent (-) interface.

WP7's live tiles look ancient. They are just huge blocky icons. The horizontal, font-driven layout of WP7 is interesting, but for everything that looks better than iOS/Android, another looks or works worse.

I can understand the growing despise against Apple and their lawsuit shenanigans. Although I also understand Apple's stance against some of the more blatant rip-offs. Like the Galaxy Tab, that started it all. Samsung makes brilliant devices more often than not, but they are not above just outright ripping off stuff every now and then.
But this is life and this is the IT industry. Everybody's always copied from others. Including Apple.

RE: Patent Office
By Cheesew1z69 on 6/9/2012 10:30:57 AM , Rating: 2
If it actually had been "blatantly" ripped off. The big SAMSUNG on the front was pretty obvious to anyone who isn't blind.

RE: Patent Office
By tunzer on 6/12/2012 5:17:55 AM , Rating: 2
Pinky: Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?
Brain: The same thing we do every night, Pinky - try to take over the world!

RE: Patent Office
By kjboughton on 6/7/2012 5:14:36 PM , Rating: 2
You just described Rambus' business model to a 'T'.

RE: Patent Office
By MozeeToby on 6/7/2012 3:25:52 PM , Rating: 5
My understanding is that the idiots at the patent office grant patents they know are questionable and likely not valid and figure it is up to the court system to decide on them. I don't think they research design characteristics, functionality or anything else. They only check to see if there is a prior patent, wait for anyone to challenge the patent and if not then finally issue said patent.
This is true by my understanding as well. It wasn't always this way, but the patent office was, at one point, decades behind in their work load and the policies were changes to allow the patent officers to get through the pile much faster than would have otherwise been possible. The problem is... well, this. Bad patents mean stupid, expensive court cases for things that never should have been granted in the first place. Not to mention the fact that the courts haven't seemed to have caught up with the change in policies; they just assume the patents are largely valid.

RE: Patent Office
By joex444 on 6/7/2012 3:41:19 PM , Rating: 4
This is essentially how it works.

Fact is if they accept a patent, there is a fee paid. If they reject it, lesser fee. From the patent office point of view they get money on patents they can accept. This leads to loose standards; they patent many things that they know would not stand up in court because they can't find anyone who owns said patent.

They should just raise the fees, and demand a narrower focus on the patent. Anyone got a patent on compounds or molecules, BTW?

RE: Patent Office
By mastard on 6/7/2012 6:52:01 PM , Rating: 2
I have a patent on some molecules and it works pretty much the same way. Who ever files first gets the patent no one checks it or anything they didn't even ask for copies of my notebook pages to show that I had really done it. The only stipulation is if you have disclosed the invention "molecule" in a public forum you have only one year to file the invention disclosure or you lose the right to patent. Additionally any prior disclosure of the "molecule" before the patent is filed results in the loss of international patent rights.

For the most part the only people who police this stuff are the lawyers at my university who want documentation of when you made the invetion and if it was disclosed in anyway.


RE: Patent Office
By hkscfreak on 6/7/2012 7:13:03 PM , Rating: 3
There are. Those are called prescription drugs.

RE: Patent Office
By socrates1984 on 6/7/2012 4:34:47 PM , Rating: 3
To add a bit to this comment, as of 2011, the US patent system works on a "first to file" basis, not "first to invent". The role of un-patented prior art has been vastly diminished.

A number of large companies (including Microsoft, IBM, Apple) lobbied for this change so they can crush competition using their large legal departments.

Unless Sony successfully filed similar design patents for the X505, Apple's design patent is valid. The courts will sort things out further, but mostly patent law is decided by the size of your legal team/budget, not fairness, rightness, etc.

With the new patent law, business has become much more difficult for smaller companies and individual inventors. The "first to file" law also creates a tremendous incentive for industrial espionage.

For all intents and purposes, the "new and improved" US Patent Office is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Fortune 500. There's an exception here and there for VC-backed companies, but mostly everyone else is shut out.

RE: Patent Office
By tjoynt on 6/7/2012 9:22:33 PM , Rating: 3
From wikipedia:
With the America Invents Act of 2011, which was signed by President Obama on September 16, 2011[7] The law will switch U.S. right to the patent from the present "first-to-invent" system to a "first-to-file" system for patent applications filed on or after March 16, 2013 .

So Apple's patent is not included in the new patent regime.

RE: Patent Office
By marsovac on 6/11/2012 11:32:39 AM , Rating: 2
Wait, what!?

Lets sum up:

The patent system:

- is an office that should work similar to a QA department
- gets paid for not doing its job properly
- as of 2013 will not have to do its job AT ALL

So what is the purpose of this department?

"This is about the Internet.  Everything on the Internet is encrypted. This is not a BlackBerry-only issue. If they can't deal with the Internet, they should shut it off." -- RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis

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