According to statistics released earlier this year by the Intellectual Property Owners Association, Microsoft is near the top of the list when it comes to companies applying for and receiving U.S. patents. In 2013, the company was issued 2,814 patents, the 6th-most globally for that year and an increase for Microsoft by 4.1 percent over the previous year’s totals.
While Microsoft is primarily known for computer software, personal computers and other consumer electronics, they pursue a wide assortment of intriguing innovations, as evidenced by a recent review of issued U.S. patents to Microsoft.
As a major developer of computing products, it makes sense that Microsoft would have invested a lot of time and money into creating enhanced user interfaces for its computing products. The natural user interface (NUI) developed by Microsoft for its Xbox Kinect system is further enhanced by U.S. Patent No. 8897491, which is titled System for Finger Recognition and Tracking (image shown left). This patent claims a method for generating a model of a user’s hands including one or more fingers which involves analyzing position and depth data of an image to recognize a user’s hand and techniques for discerning features of a hand. This system is capable of identifying commands made by fingers, which have typically been too small and subtle for conventional NUI systems to identify.
Speech recognition is an important field of development in user interfacing for computer resources and Microsoft has extended its holdings in this field through the issue of U.S. Patent No. 8892439, entitled Combination and Federation of Local and Remote Speech Recognition. This patent claims an article with a computer-readable storage device containing instructions that enable a computer to receive audio data indicating a task and performing speech recognition on the audio data utilizing local and remote recognizers. This system is intended to support the proliferation of applications utilizing automatic speech recognition (ASR) which can require access to large stores of data, slowing down mobile processes.
Intriguing mobile interfaces are also the focus of U.S. Patent No. 8902255, issued under the title Mobile Platform for Augmented Reality. This patent protects a system comprising a mobile image processing manager that obtains three-dimensional image data associated with an observation environment within a line of sight of an imaging device and a navigational plan engine for determining a navigational plan for a mobile platform. This system would enable the superimposing of digital features onto an image captured by a mobile device or may otherwise project virtual images onto a surrounding environment.
A couple of patents which caught our eye during our recent survey of Microsoft would aid a variety of meetings which use Microsoft computing products as meeting platforms. Techniques for identifying the participants of a meeting who are located inside of a physical meeting room are outlined by U.S. Patent No. 8892123, which is titled Identifying Meeting Attendees Using Information from Devices. The computer-implemented method involves automatically recognizing the physical presence of a mobile device in proximity to a physical meeting place and including a profile associated with that mobile device as an attendant at the meeting. This innovation is designed to remove the manual nature of confirming a roster of meeting attendees at a physical meeting place. Meetings taking place through online platforms are the target of the technology protected by U.S. Patent No. 8890926, titled Automatic Identification and Representation of Most Relevant People in Meetings (image shown below). The method involves presenting participants of a meeting in order of their relevancy which involves categorizing the participants based on a set of factors and presenting participants in a user interface gallery which emphasizes relevancy categories by utilizing a spatial grouping scheme. This system is configured to present meeting participants to other meeting participants in a way that provides a better meeting context than systems that focus on presenting the loudest talker.
We’ll close our discussion of patents recently issued to Microsoft with a look at a technology that will help those with strict dietary restrictions find the perfect meal while eating out at a restaurant. U.S. Patent No. 8903708, which is titled Analyzing Restaurant Menus in View of Consumer Preferences, claims a method of analyzing food items available at a restaurant that involves storing a list of food criteria on a mobile device, receiving menu data about available food items at the device and displaying menu data on the mobile device which has been filtered based on a user’s dietary needs. This invention should be of interest to those with medical conditions, like high blood pressure or diabetes, as well as other preferences, such as price or calories.
Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to do a webinar conversation with Bob Stoll, former Commissioner for Patents at the USPTO and current partner at Drinker Biddle in Washington, D.C. Our wide-ranging discussion lasted for just over one hour. You can access the entire recording, free, at Patent Eligibility in a Time of Patent Turmoil.
What follows is a bit of our conversation to whet your appetite.
STOLL: As someone very interested in the patent arena and getting the standards correct, I’ve been really worrying about things. I think we are in a very confusing state at the moment. I think that the courts are actually undermining patent eligibility in many different areas. And the irony seems to be, Gene, that the Supreme Court and now this Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit seem to be not considering the fact that the United States is leading in many of these emerging technologies and specifically thinking about software and diagnostic methods and personalized medicine and gene sequences….
In a move reminiscent of the action taken earlier this year by NY Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, the Federal Trade Commission last week announced that MPHJ Technology Investments, LLC, agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they used deceptive sales claims and phony legal threats in letters that accused thousands of small businesses around the United States of patent infringement. As is typical for FTC settlements, the proposed consent order was published in the Federal Register and public comments have been solicited. The proposed consent order will be subject to public comment for 30 days, continuing through December 8, 2014, after which the Commission will decide whether to make the proposed consent order final. Interested parties can submit written comments electronically or in paper form. Although the FTC will accept these comments, in my experience, when an enforcement settlement has gotten to this stage, we can expect the proposed settlement to become final.
The settlement with MPHJ is the first time the FTC has taken action using its consumer protection authority against a patent assertion entity (PAE). Perhaps most significantly, in the announcement of the settlement, the FTC acknowledged that patents promote innovation, which is a simple enough truth. Still given recent FTC inquiry into the industry, this statement from the Obama Administration could signal that the FTC will take actions only against outliers and not the bulk of the industry, which operates legitimately to enforce valid patents.
A 4G/LTE patent portfolio, which includes patents having priority filing dates all the way back to April 2001, is currently for sale through ICAP Patent Brokerage. This news is of particular interest because it is not every day that you see standard essential patents hit the market, and in this case the patents cover a variety of carrier grade wireless technologies that are widely used within the industry.
The patent portfolio belongs to Raze Technologies, a research and development company founded in late 1999 with the purpose of developing a last mile access system that would allow service providers to offer both broadband data and high-quality, fully featured voice services to residential and small business customers. In August 2002, Raze suspended its development operations and focused its remaining resources on the prosecution of its patent portfolio. Over time, as most if not all of the other innovative start-ups in the space have gone the way of the dinosaur, Raze has managed to accumulate a foundationally important patent portfolio relating to standard-related innovations surrounding mobile network infrastructure technologies that relate to 4G/LTE, which is the next generation wireless standard.
The term “patent troll” conjures up all kinds of images and ideas, but what is a patent troll? Unfortunately, there is really no universally accepted definition of what a patent troll is, although if you are getting sued for patent infringement by a non-practicing entity, you probably think you are being sued by a patent troll.
My view has long been that companies that complain about patent trolls don’t really want them to go away. Patent trolls are extremely valuable to these big tech companies because they are an identifiable and unsympathetic villain, even if they cannot really be defined in any satisfying way. The image of a patent troll can be paraded about Capitol Hill whenever patent reform is being pushed, or even in front of the Supreme Court, which increasingly seems to be interested in taking them into consideration when reaching decisions, despite them not being involved in the case.
I personally hate the term patent troll, which may come as a shock to many because I use it all the time. I use it to attempt to crystalize the issue, because the term “patent troll” has over time become synonymous with “non-practicing entity,” and not all non-practicing entities are bad. In fact, many are good actors that diligently work against long odds to research and develop new technologies, treatments, drugs and therapies we all want.