For the uninitiated, motion sensors work on either the idea of cameras capturing motions, infrared light waves, or gyroscopes. Yet, even with this simple trio, this subject has led to a large scale of lawsuits based on patent violations. There are two major lawsuits to look at, one in the past, giving insight into what would fail, and one more current, involving Apple. What do these motion controls do? What would be patentable? What arguments could be made to fight these patents?
Patent lawsuits on motion-sensor technology
First, it’s important to note that motion controls, and indeed much of the technology that roots current motion controls are not new, but rather opens up to new avenues. There has been an advent in motion control with the Nintendo Wii System. While it is rudimentary, initially consisting of a motion-controller device and a sensor bar, it allows individuals to control games (e.g., classic example being swinging around the remote to swing a bat). However, with this came patent disputes, primarily between Koninkl Philips Electronics NV v. Nintendo of Europe GmbH, which ultimately succeeded in the UK, as the court deemed that the idea of a camera and sensor was specialized knowledge in the industry. Comparatively, there is a newer litigation involving Apple and Fitbit. On or about January 2016, the litigation began over the technology used to track health and fitness for individuals, such as motion and steps taken, among other patents.
Staying on top of patents
The Philips/Nintendo and Apple/Fitbit cases can provide instructions for other developers. First, one should conduct a comprehensive search for similar patents through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) website, as well as other countries, depending on what markets are being pursued for the specific product. Second, is knowing exactly what can be patented with the governmental agencies. It would be hard to knowingly infringe on patent rights if an individual thought that the new product was “different enough” from a pre-existing patent. From that, to get protection, the patented product would have to be the correct subject matter (not a process, but more like a thing), novel, non-obvious, and useful. Regarding motion sensors this could mean that even if pre-existing technology, if patented, is updated and now patentable itself due to the improvement, the person may still be legally liable due to a failure to license the underlying patent for exploitation.
Again, more unique to motion sensor patents is how the product could be deemed as a growing field of patents, especially given the increased use in fitness trackers, gaming devices, and smart phones. If investing in a company, one should consider whether due diligence was performed, especially considering “patent trolls” which do not manufacture products, but instead research technology or manage patent portfolios, making the existence of similar technology non-obvious to individuals if it is not on the marketplace.
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