Thursday, May 29, 2008

Patent Story: A little background

Recently, a local company (Vuestar Technologies P/L) sent invoices (ranging from hundreds to thousands of Singapore dollars) to numerous website owners. Basically, the company claimed that those websites are infringing their patent, and thus requesting for payment for the license fee.

Before we look specifically into the Vuestar scenario, I think it would be better to have a little more background knowledge in patents.

What is a patent ?

From IPOS (Intellectual Property Office of Singapore):

“A Patent is a monopoly right given by the Government to the owner of an invention to enable him to prevent others from using, copying or making the invention without his consent in the country in which he has obtained patent protection.”

What is patentable ?

“A patentable invention can be a product or a process that gives a new technical solution to a problem. It can be a new method of doing things, the composition of a new product, or a technical improvement on how certain objects work.”

According to IPOS, for an invention to be patentable, it must in general satisfy the below three key criteria:

1. New:
The invention should not have been made known to the public in any way, anywhere in the world. An invention is not new if it has already been made available to the public by word of mouth, or it has been commercially exploited, or it has been featured in an article or advertised in the press, or it has been demonstrated. Such disclosure may be novelty destroying and forms one of the grounds for the revocation of a patent.

2. Inventive Step:
The invention must be something that represents an improvement over any existing product or process that is already available. The improvement must be non-obvious to a person who is skilled in the art in that technological field of the invention. If an invention is new yet obvious to a person skilled in the art, the invention would not fulfil the inventive step requirement.

3. Industrial Application:
The invention must be useful and have some form of practical application. It should be capable of being made or used, or achieving a concrete end result in any industry.

A little background on the company

Now that we have some basic ideas of what is patent and what is patentable, let’s go back to the Vuestar scenario. A little search on ACRA will reveal that it is a private limited company registered in the year 2006, formerly known as Blue Steel Dragon Pte. Ltd. Its managing director is Paul Smith, while the patent “inventor” is Ronald Neville Langford. Don’t quite sound Singaporean? Right, from what I know of, Ronald is an Australian. In fact, the patent in question is first filed in Australia in 2001.

The patent in question

The patent which Vuestar Technologies claimed to be infringed, is titled “Method of locating web-pages by utilising visual images” (Patent publication no. 95940).

From the 29-pages full specification of the patent, the patent is basically talking about:

An improved method of locating web-pages and/or web-sites, as described in the following steps:
1. User submitting a search request to a server-side application via a terminal.
2. The server-side application searching a database in accordance with the submitted search request.
3. Identified database entries being transmitted to the terminal as a search results list, each entry containing a hyperlink to a web-page and visual content related to the web-page.
4. The user is able to view the visual content without being required to activate the hyperlink to obtain the visual content.
5. Contact information (telephone, fax, email, etc) for an organization is also provided as a component of an entry of the search results list.

So basically, he claimed that in prior art (search engines before application of patent), the previous search engines only returned text information and hyperlinks upon a search request, which is not very useful to the user. Thus, in this “invention”, he proposed that the search engine stored visual content along with other information of the websites in its centralized database, and returned these visual content as a component of the entry of the search result list.

There are other specific embodiments written inside the full specification, but basically it revolves around how the visual information should be presented to the user, and how the website should react upon user’s actions.

To my disapointment, there are very little (if any) technical details or innovative algorithms on how to implement this “invention”. The idea of this “invention” itself, I would say, isn’t really impressive and probably quite obvious to a person skilled in the art.

Vuestar’s claims

According to Vuestar Technologies website, it claims that:

“A web site which has been developed by or for a URL addressee/ owner and uses visual images to hyperlink to other pages in which any first or subsequent page provides the contact details of an Organisation would in Legal terms appear to use the steps and methods outlined in a claim of the Patent .”

If you have read the full specification of the patent, you would probably be as baffled as me. Contrast Vuestar’s claims and what I have written in the previous section “The patent in question”, it just doesn’t match. The methods outlined in the patent is about presenting of visual content as a component of each entry of the search results list. Yet, Vuestar claims that “using visual images to hyperlink to other pages” is an infringement to the patent, which I seriously cannot agree with.

I shall just stop here for the time being. In my next post, I shall go into more detailed analysis on the patent itself, and what I think of the infringement claims in various scenario.

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