Apple Inc. products - including the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch - are targets of a patent infringement suit that got a green light today from the U.S. International Trade Commission.
The ITC commissioners voted to institute an investigation under section 337 of the Tariff Act against Apple based on a complaint filed by Taiwan’s Elan Microelectronics Corp. Elan alleges that Apple is infringing its patent covering electronic devices with multi-touch pads and touchscreens, and has asked the ITC to ban the import of all infringing products.
Apple is a frequent visitor to the ITC these days, both as a plaintiff and a defendant. Since January, the company has been sued in two other cases - one involving camera phones, the other over technology used in mobile phones, portable music players and computers - and has filed a complaint alleging infringement of its patents related to personal data and mobile communications devices. Another complaint is awaiting an ITC vote, with Apple going after Eastman Kodak over digital imaging devices.
According to Elan’s complaint, the patent at issue “discloses and claims technology that is fundamental to multi-touch user interfaces found in many computers and portable electronic devices.”
Elan counsel Paul Brinkman of Alston & Bird laid out the history of touchpad technology, which coincided with the development of laptop computers. “Many early laptops included a trackball pointing device in the computer housing. However, trackballs had a tendency to become dirty and wear out, and were generally difficult to operate,” he wrote in the complaint. “For these reasons, starting in 1994, the flat, solid state touchpad became a popular mechanism for cursor control input in portable computers.”
The invention covered by Elan’s patent improved the touchscreen by allowing the user to “contact the touchpad with two or more fingers to perform the operations that would otherwise require both cursor movement with one hand and operation of mechanical buttons with another.”
“Apple has used Elan's patented technology throughout its product line without Elan's authorization,” the complaint alleges. “For example, in June 2007 Apple introduced its iPhone and iPod Touch products. These products use touchscreens as essentially the only user interface option and make widespread use of the multitouch input gestures” covered by the patent.
An Apple spokesperson did not immediately return a call for comment. Apple’s outside counsel has not been announced, but in the other pending ITC matters, the company has turned to Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and Kirkland & Ellis for defense, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges and Adduci, Mastriani & Schaumberg to file complaints.