Another Patent Issues for Google's Self-Driving Vehicle

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A new patent that was issued to Google yesterday provides an interesting account on how and when its self-driving vehicle will take control from the driver. For example, when the driver is ready to relinquish control to the autonomous driving system or computer, the driver may press a button or pull a lever (similar to activating cruise control.) However, before taking control of the vehicle, the computer will assess the safety of the situation, for example, by identifying the GPS location of the vehicle or detecting whether there are a large number of obstacles in the area. When the computer is ready to take control, a light or indicator is activated and the driver may release his or her hands from the steering wheel.

In order to accomodate for emergencies, this patent provides a number of pressure sensitive controls or devices located at different locations in the vehicle, for example, on portions of the steering wheel and/or brake and acceleration pedals. Thus, in the case of an emergency, a driver may grip the steering wheel in order to activate the pressure sensitive controls and instantly re-obtain control of the vehicle. However, in order to prevent returning control to the driver in every case of contact, the pressure sensitive controls may be calibrated to prevent accidential transferring control to the driver, for instance, in the case of an accidential bump.

The figure below, taken from the issued patent (U.S. Patent No. 9,134,729), shows a driver on his phone while the vehicle is in a self-driving or autonomous mode.


Toyota Offers Royalty-Free Use of 5,680 Fuel Cell Vehicle Patents

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To accompany the recent announcement of Toyota's fuel cell vehicle (FCV), called the Mirai, Toyota opens up use of its 5,680 fuel cell patents on a royalty-free basis. In order to power the motor of a vehicle, fuel cells capture and use electricity released from the combination of oxygen and hydrogen molecules.

Although Toyota announces plans to open 12 hydrogen-fueling stations in the Northeastern United States, there is very little infrastructure around the country to support FCV on a mass production basis. The release of its patents is an apparent attempt to get other automakers to build FCV and help open up new hydrogen-fueling stations and infrastructure.

The caveat is that the royalty-free use of Toyota's patents will expire in 2020 for automakers, although companies involved in hydrogen production and supply will be able to use the patents royalty-free for an unlimited amount of time.

This announcement by Toyota follows a similar announcement made by Tesla Motors in June of last year offering its patents to its competitors for "good faith" use.

Some additional articles on this topic: Engadget.com and CNet.com.


Computer Software Patents Face Supreme Court Challenge

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In less than a week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Alice Corporation v. CLS Bank International, a case that could impact the patentability of computer software and business methods. Although an outright ban on the patentabilty of software is unlikely, the Court is expected to focus more on what constitutes an unpatentable "abstract idea."

The "abstrat idea" test is nothing new to the Supreme Court, however, previous decisions such as the one issued in the 2010 Bilski case, which failed to articulate definite boundries of an abstract idea, have proven to be unsatisfacory.

Critics argue that software-based and business method patents tend to be vague, directed to obvious inventions and hinder innovation by simply covering abstract ideas and mathematical expressions. Proponents, however, including Microsoft, point out that software-enabled inventions are "the modern-day heirs to mechanical inventions" and that by viewing computers as merely calculators is "disconnected from the reality of where innovation is occurring today and where most innovation will occur in the future."

With arguments scheduled for March 31, 2014, a final decision from the Supreme Court is not expected until late June 2014.

Some additoinal articles on this topic: PatentlyO.com and Nature.com.


Happy Veterans Day

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To commemorate the end of World War I, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11, 1919 as Veterans Day (initially called "Armistice Day"). Since then, Veterans Day has been held on every November 11th to honor U.S. veterans and victims of all wars.

Coincidentally, on that very same day, November 11, 1919, U.S. Patent No. 1,364,388 was filed for a toy consisting of one of more military figures which are movable to simulate certain military actions and gestures.

Happy Veterans Day -- Thanks to all who have proudly served our country!


Small Emerging Tech Company Sells Voice Recognition Patents to Google

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SR Tech Group, LLC, a privately held small virtual company which focuses on the development of emerging technology, computer software, and speech recognition, announced this week that it sold a patent portfolio of voice recognition technology to Google. The portfolio included U.S. Patent No. 7,742,922 entitled "Speech Interface for Search Engines," and U.S. Patent No. 8,056,070 entitled "System and Method for Modifying and Updating a Speech Recognition Program." The terms and details of the transaction were not released.

This new transaction will compliment Google's patent portfolio of nearly 50,000 patents worldwide. Google has been investing in speech recognition technology for quite some time now, with "conversational speech" already implemented on many of its mobile devices.

The Press Relases for this story can be accessed here.


Microsoft Patent Application Uses Human Body Parts for Data Transmission

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Microsoft's newest patent application explains various "Biological Entity Communication Channel Techniques," which is essentially the use of human body parts to transmit data from one electronic device to another.

Particularly, the invention requires a first electronic device, which may be wearable by the user, for example, around the user's wrist. This device can communicate data to a second electronic device, with a simple touch, by transmitting the data from the first device, through the user's arm or hand, and to the receiving device.

Microsoft mentions a few practical and interesting uses of the technology, including transferring purchase credential (e.g., credit card number, expiration date, etc.) to a terminal in order to purchase goods or services. Another potential use may include communicating access credentials for the user to access a building, certain portions of a building, or in order to operate a vehicle.

The published patent application (U.S. Patent Application Publication No. 2013/0149965) can be accessed here.


Happy Memorial Day

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For this Memorial Day, we searched the U.S. patent records for some patriotic patents and found plenty.

Here are just a few examples:

U.S. Patent No. D507,843 entitled "American Flag Lantern"
U.S. Patent No. D606,127 entitled "US Patriotic Cube Puzzle"
U.S. Patent No. D515,628 entitled "American Flag Duct Tape"
U.S. Patent No. D459,869 entitled "American Flag Hat"

Have a safe Memorial Day!


Microsoft Gains Upper Hand in XBOX Licensing Fight

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Last week, Microsoft prevailed in a patent licensing fee dispute with Motorola Mobility over technology used in Microsoft's XBox gaming consoles. Motorola Mobility initially sought $4 Billion from Microsoft as a licensing fee for incorporating technology covered by "standard-essential" patents owned by Motorola Mobility.

A "standard-essential" patent is one which covers technology used in international standards (such as the 802.11 WiFi standard and H.264 video-encoding standard) which ensures that various products are capable of working together. Licensing fees for "standard-essential" patents are often at the core of patent disputes between various technology companies like Microsoft and Google.

The Court ultimately ruled that Microsoft must pay approximately $1.8 Million per year, which amounts to a nominal per-unit licensing fee. The decision is good news for consumers who oftentimes bear the costs of patent licensing disputes through increased sales prices. The low per-unit fee is a promising sign that technology covered by "standard-essential" patents will remain affordable with minimal price increases.


Nintendo Receives Patent for Embedding Wii Contollers in Toys

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Yesterday, the United States Patent & Tradmark Office issued U.S. Patent No. 8,414,349 to Nintendo Co., Ltd. of Japan for controlling the movement of a toy via an embedded Wii contoller.

Particularly, as shown in the figures, the Wiimote is embeeded in to the frame of the the toy, which can then interact with a game simultaneously displayed or played on the Nintendo Wii. In the case of a robot toy, the communcatons between the Wii console, the Wiimote, and the toy can cause the toy to move about the room in response to certain actions in the game.

In some embodiments, multiple robots or toys may interact with each other and the environment, and can also be controlled by multiple players or users. Certain accelerator and/or gyro informatoin gathered by the controller relate the relative position of the robot with respect to the environment and other robots to the console for processing.


Sony Improves Head-Mounted Display Apparatus

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A recent United States patent application filed by Sony Corporation of Tokyo, Japan reveals some new improvements in its Head-Mounted Diaply ("HMD") Apparatus -- developments that may help Sony compete with the anticipated Google Glass.

Sony's HMD appartus is built more like a traditional glasses frame, and includes pop-up displays appearing on both lenses along with ear buds mounted on the frame arms.

The new market for HMD glasses is wide open, leaving significant room for technology companies like Sony and Google to build new and innovative features. However, it may be a tough road as lawmakers in West Virginia, and perhaps other states, are already seeking to ban the use of HMD glasses while driving. The proposed legislation in West Virginia would lump head-mounted displays (such as Sony's HMD Apparatus and Google Glass) with cell phones and other electonic devices currently banned from use during operation of a motor vehicle.


Frito-Lay Loses Patent Lawsuit Over Scoops

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A jury in Texas sided with the Defendant, Medallion Foods, Inc., stating that it's "Bowlz" bowl-shaped tortilla chips did not infringe the intellectual property owned by the snack giant, Frito-Lay.

Frito-Lay filed a lawsuit againt Medallion Foods, Inc. in February 2012, alleging that the Defendant's Bowlz tortilla snack chips were too similar to Frito-Lay's Tostitos Scoops! chips. Both of the chips are formed into a small bowl-shaped configuratoin to allow for easier scooping.

In addtion to various trademark registrations, Frito-Lay owns a number of patents for the process of forming a tortilla chip into a bowl-shape configuration (U.S. Patent Nos. 6,610,344, 6,592,923, 6,638,553), as well as a U.S. design patent for the mold (U.S. Patent No. D459,853). In the end, the jury concluded that Medallion's methods of making the Bowlz tortilla chips were sufficiently different than the methods described in Frito-Lay's patents, and therefore Frito-Lay failed to prove that the Defendant infringed any of its intellectual property.

The original Complaint can be found here.


Patent Eligibility for Computer-Based Inventions

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Over the last few years the debate of patent eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101 has been a hot topic. Recently, on February 8, 2013, the Federal Circuit held oral argument in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. regarding subject matter eligibility for a compter-based invention.

The two questions presented at the hearing were: (1) what test should the court apply when determining whether a computer-implemented invention is patent eligible, and (2) should it matter whether a computer-based invention is claimed as a method, system or storage medium, or should these different claim strategies be considered equivalent for § 101 purposes?

During oral argument, the parties seemed to agree that software is not per se patent eligible, meaning that software by iteslf and independent of its computer implementatoin is likely an "abstract idea." There also seemed to be a consensus that a specially designed computer used to implement or perform a particular function can be patent eligible under § 101. The center of the debate was what test the courts should apply in order to determine whether a specialized computer is involved, and whether the claims at issue meet those standards.

The Federal Circuit will likely take a few months to decide the issue. We will monitor this case closely and report any developements.

Some additonal articles on this topic can be found here (Patently-O) and here (JD Supra).


Final First-Inventor-To-File Rules Published

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Earlier today, the United States Patent & Trademark Office ("USPTO") published the final rules of practice implementing the First-Inventor-To-File portion of the America Invents Act ("AIA"). The First-Inventor-To-File protion of the AIA will begin on March 16, 2013 and mark perhaps one of the most significant changes in the U.S. patent laws in the last decade.

After March 16, 2013, patents will be awarded to the first inventor to file a patent application at the USPTO, rather the first to invent. Although appearing quite drastic, the First-Inventor-To-File rule is a major step toward a harmonized patent system with international implications. Prior to the AIA, the USPTO was the only natoinal patent office that implemented a first-to-invent patent system. The long term goal and efforts stemming from the AIA and international patent harmonization include greater consistency in the prosecution and enforcement of patents in the United States.

The changes to implement the First-Inventor-To-File provisions can be found here.

Click here to read another article on this topic.


Sleep Aid Pillow

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Sony Corporation recently filed a patent application seeking to protect a pillow that is designed wake the user up at an ideal time, or otherwise after an "awakening point" has been reached. In particular, the pillow includes a series of electrodes that contact the user's head or scalp and are structured to read the user's brain wave activity during sleep. The brain wave activity is analyzed by a computer processor, also embedded within the pillow, to determine whether the awakening point has been reached. If so, in one embodiment, an alarm will sound to wake up the user.

The patent application can be found here.


Samsung Super Bowl Commercial

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In advance of the "Big Game" this evening, Samsung released a teaser for their commercial mocking intellectual property protection. As a competitor in the intensely litigious arena of smartphones, perhaps this commercial is a jab at Apple, who continues to enforce its intellectual property against Samsung in a worldwide litigious war.


Smart Shoe

Posted by: Benjamin M. Hanrahan

In a patent application that was publised on January 24, 2013, Apple attempts to patent a new smart shoe that is capable of detecting when the shoe has reached a critical wear level. A shoe that has reached this critical wear level may cause damage to the wearer's feet, legs, and back. Apple's patent application consists of a sensor embedded with the shoe (either at the heel or throughout the bottom sole), a processor, and an alarm to notify an individual of the shoe's wear level.

The sensors may include motion detectors and a "body bar" to detect and measure weight and resistance. The processor will analyze the information provided by the sensors and generate a unit of time which would tell the user how much time is left in the shoe. The alarm or indicator may be connected to a watch or other device worn by the user.

The published patent application can be found here.


America Invents Act: Patent Reform

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On September 16, 2011, the United States passed the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act ("AIA") that will radically modify the patent system on March 16, 2013. The most dramatic provision of the AIA will change the Unites States patent system from a "First-to-Invent" to a "First-Inventor-To-File" system. In general, this means that proof of when an inventor discovered an invention will have essentially no bearing on applicatoins filed after March 16, 2013. Rather, the first inventor to file an application (and not the first inventor to invent) will, in most cases, have rights to a patent.

Under these circumstances, it is imperative to file a patent applicatoin (either provisional or non-provisional) with a detailed technical description of the inveniton as soon as possible to avoid being beat to the Patent Office by a second, and perhaps subsequent, inventor.