At least that’s what Research in Motion, LG, Nokia, and HTC are finding out. Macworld reports that FlashPoint Technology Inc, a company headquartered in Peterborough, NH, has filed complaints with the United States International Trade Commission for importing goods that are covered under patents that they own without paying a licensing fee.
According to FlashPoint, several of the devices that these companies have imported (including the HTC Incredible, the Verizon big brother of my phone) violate patents that FlashPoint acquired in 2000 and 2001 that relate to technology for storing preferences about your digital camera settings, determining what capabilities a certain camera has, and for auto-rotating an image when you rotate your camera (or in this case cell phone). But can a company that was founded in 1996, and that according to Macworld suspended R&D in 2007, really hold patents on things that seem, to me at least, to be common sense? More after the jump.
I’m honestly kind of torn on how I feel about this. On the one hand, the businessman side of me says, “Hey, these people thought of this stuff first. They should be able to profit from it.” On the other hand, the programmer in me say, “What the heck? This crap is common sense.” Ok, ok, so maybe the ability for a picture to rotate when you rotate your camera is kind of original. Accelerometers (the devices that allow for this sort of behavior) haven’t been that common in handheld devices for very long. But the rest of it seems kind of silly to me.
I read and tried to understand what I could from the first patent, and skimmed over parts of the third, and what I’m guessing is that whether or not these companies get hit with some fines or have to settle is going to depend on hyper-technicalities in the wording of the patent, like the definition of a “camera.”
The definition of a camera has changed a little bit over the past decade. Back then, it referred to a device whose sole purpose was to capture and store images, and the smartphones targeted by this complaint do a good deal more than that. I’m actually willing to bet that the core issue of this is going to be what chip inside the smartphones that the camera settings are actually stored on – that is whether it is a chip directly attached to the camera’s image processor or whether the settings are intermixed with the other settings that the phone maintains when it’s turned off.
But here’s my question: Who is FlashPoint?
From the best I can tell, what we’re looking at is not a 21st century company. Their website was last edited in 2006, and it is still using rudimentary web technology for that time – completely contrary to the futuristic minded image that their mission statement would like to convey by saying “FlashPoint is defining the convergence of Internet and digital content, such as images, video, and music.” Um, right. You’re so concerned with the Internet that your website is 4 years old?
I guess the best way to boil down my thoughts on the matter is this: If the products cited in the USITC complaint in fact use the exact technology described in FlashPoint’s patents, then more power to them. After all, this is ‘Merica. However, if these guys are instead trying to retrofit a smartphone to the definition of a camera in their patent in order to make money, that’s another issue. As Macworld notes, other companies have paid a licensing fee to FlashPoint (including Apple), so I doubt HTC and others were completely ignorant of the patents. Maybe they just thought they didn’t apply to smartphones?
I can’t make any real judgement on this, as I had trouble following the text of the patent (cooking dinner at the same time will do that to you), but maybe someone else knows what’s up? Below are links to the original MacWorld article and all three patents.If you have any thoughts that you’d like to share on this issue – leave me some comments below!