Does Apple Own Touch Technology?

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As you've no doubt heard, Apple has won a patent for its coveted multitouch technology on the iPhone and is also in the process of trademarking the term "Multi-Touch." (You can see some of the patent paperwork below). This has prompted many tech pundits to consider the implications of such a patent for touch products in general. Will Apple litigate every new touch product that comes along and stifle innovation?

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We've already already seen some rumblings in that direction. Apple's acting chief and COO Tim Cook recently said, "we will not stand for having our IP [intellectual property] ripped off, and we'll use whatever weapons that we have at our disposal [to protect it]." This made some wonder about Palm's upcoming Pre, which reportedly has an iPhone-like feel. Palm responded to media inquiries by saying it is confident it has the necessary to tools to defend its products in court. This may be a harbinger of things to come as other smartphone makers challenge the iPhone.

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So does Apple have the market cornered on multitouch? Probably not, according to Steven Henry, an intellectual property attorney who specializes in computer-related inventions for the Boston-based law firm Wolf Greenfield. Henry says that while a patent may generally present obstacles to new inventions, often a patent will, in fact, encourage innovation and "spur others to be creative and devise alternatives."

"Many times, those alternatives prove superior to the original, patented invention," Henry says. "If the Apple patent threatens other products, that can either be because those others independently developed the same technology before Apple's became public, or because they took a "me too" approach. If the latter, why should Apple not be able to stop them from capitalizing on its inventiveness?"

Henry also points out that checks and balances exist. It's possible the courts could "ultimately find Apple's invention to have been obvious and thus invalidate it. If a party thinks it has documents to show Apple's patent to be invalid, it can ask the Patent Office to reexamine the patent's claims," he says.

That's all well and good for a corporation with deep pockets like Palm, but what about those smaller start-ups that may invent the next great touch product? Are they in danger of having their product squashed by Apple's patent?

If they're worried, they might turn to groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF has a Patent Busting Project to protect innovators against what it calls bad patents. The PBP disputes what it considers trivial or obvious inventions like one-click shopping, online shopping carts, video streaming, and the hyperlink. No one should have a monopoly license on those innovations; they're widespread.

Apple's Multi-Touch patent is a far cry from these examples, but touch products are becoming more ubiquitous, raising the possibility of increased litigation. However, attorney Henry isn't too concerned. He says it's possible that Apple could block competitors from making multitouch screens, but is also as likely to license its patent to noncompetitive products as the company has done in the past.

The future of multitouch technology seems to be in Apple's hands at the moment. Whether it stays that way may be a matter for the courts.

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