Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mirror Worlds, LLC v. Apple, Inc. and Apple’s New Cover Flow Design Patent

What happens when a utility patent holder wins an infringement suit against a defendant who has been awarded a design patent covering the same technology? This interesting scenario has recently arisen in the case of Mirror Worlds v. Apple.
In March 2008, Apple was hit with the patent infringement suit by Mirror Worlds alleging that Apple’s Cover Flow, Time Machine and Spotlight technologies infringed several utility patents held by Mirror Worlds. The patents in suit are directed to a document stream operating system and document organizing and display facility. The earliest filing date in the patent family is June 28, 1996. According to the patents, documents are stored by an operating system in a chronological sequence with respect to other documents, based on the time that the document was presented to the operating system. The patents also disclose representing the document stream as a receding stack of overlapping document icons. A representative figure from the patents is shown below:

This brings to mind Apple’s old HyperCard application, originally released in 1987, which this author used extensively in the early 1990’s on his trusty Mac IIsi to develop lighting and video control applications for a nightclub at Walt Disney World’s Pleasure Island as well as a media event database for WDW’s 20th anniversary in 1991. HyperCard followed a Rolodex card model for designing applications on the Mac, with each card within a “virtual stack” of cards containing a set of data and some functional code. Apparently, Apple also saw the similarities, and brought these up during trial.

Nevertheless, on October 1 a federal jury in the Eastern District of Texas awarded Mirror Worlds damages of $208.5 million (per patent) for infringing three of Mirror Worlds’ patents.
Entirely by coincidence, on October 5, the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted to Apple design patent D624,932 for an “Animated graphical user interface for a display screen or portion thereof.” Many readers familiar with iTunes and iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch) will recognize this as Apple’s Cover Flow feature, where icons representing music albums or other recordings rotate and scroll across the screen as the user browses through them.

Apple is appealing the jury verdict. It remains to be seen what, if any, practical effect this new design patent will have on the outcome of this interesting case, and the implications to Apple’s patent rights in the face of this verdict, if it stands.

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