Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ogma v. Apple: Disturbing "Aspects" of the Patent System

A video display with a ~1.5-to-1 aspect ratio was non-obvious in 1995???

As mentioned in the prior post on these cases, one of the two asserted patents is US 5,825,427, titled Image display system.

Generally, when I see news coverage of a patent suit, I also find some misplaced outrage in the article or its comments based on just the title or abstract of the asserted patent.  When possible, I do my part to defend the patent system, pointing out that the actual claims being asserted are far narrower than the title, abstract, or news article imply, and that the patent system is, to a large extent, doing its job.

The '427 patent in this case, however, strains my ability to mount a defense.  Claim 3 of the '427, rather stunningly, reads as follows:

3. An image display system for displaying a video image comprising:

a video screen having a substantially rectangular configuration forming an aspect ratio of the horizontal dimension of said video screen to the vertical dimension of said video screen, said aspect ratio being between 1.45:1 and 1.60:1.

That's it.  An image display system with an aspect ratio between 1.45:1 and 1.60:1.

Apple is accused of infringing the '427 since the 960x640 display of the iPhone 4 and latest iPod Touch, and the 480x320 displays of the earlier iPhones and iPod Touches, have 1.5:1 aspect ratios, which fall within the claimed range.

Motion picture and video content have long been produced in a wide variety of aspect ratios, including some in the claimed range.  Computer graphics displays have also varied significantly in aspect ratio.  In terms of pixel aspect ratio, the claimed range would cover, for instance, at one extreme, the 640x400 or 320x200 video modes of some 1980s video controller cards.

Since my interpretation of the claim seemed implausibly broad given the prior art, I searched the exhibits of Ogma's ITC filing for clarity.  Exhibit 13 is titled "Claim chart applying U.S. Patent No. 5,825,427 to accused Apple product."  In essence, the claim chart says that Apple infringes the patent with the iPhone 4 because, yes, its display has a 1.5:1 aspect ratio.

So, as far as I can tell, a company formed this past January would like to stop the importation of millions of iPhones because the phones have displays with a 1.5:1 aspect ratio, and because that company has acquired a patent that the USPTO somehow issued that covers such displays based just on their aspect ratio.

Sometimes, things happen in the patent system that I can't defend.




(Note: Claim 1 is slightly narrower, requiring presentation of 4:3 and 16:9 content on such a screen.  However, letterboxing, to present wider aspect ratio content on a narrower aspect ratio screen, and pillarboxing, to present narrower aspect ratio content on a wider aspect screen, have been known in the art for decades.  Letterboxing became common even in the home with widescreen LaserDiscs of the 1980s, and more so with the advent of DVDs.  A common instance of pillarboxing would be the presentation of an Academy ratio film on a wider cinema screen or widescreen television.)

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