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Apple is accused in lawsuit of infringing on Intertrust patents

March 20, 2013|By Jon Healey
  • Intertrust Technologies Corp.'s lawsuit against Apple alleges that the iPhone, iPad and other Apple devices violated Intertrust's patents. Above, an Apple store in Beijing on March 12.
Intertrust Technologies Corp.'s lawsuit against Apple alleges… (Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg )

Apple is famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) for going it alone on some technologies rather than joining the rest of the tech crowd.

For example, its iTunes store sold downloadable songs for years in a copy-protected format that only Apple's devices could play, and even today it eschews the de facto industry standard for downloadable tracks (MP3) in favor of a far more obscure one (AAC). And although its Apple TV devices can stream video from several sites, they can download them only from iTunes.

One way the company has enforced such exclusivity is through the proprietary technology it uses to guard against piracy. On Wednesday, however, privately held Intertrust Technologies Corp. of Sunnyvale, Calif., sued Apple, accusing the tech giant of violating 15 patents Intertrust holds over such security techniques.

The complaint says that all of Apple's popular devices -- the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Apple TV, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, iMac and Mac Pro -- infringe on the patents, and Intertrust is asking the court for an injunction barring their sale.

The company filed the complaint in federal court in Oakland, where in 2003 it won a crucial preliminary ruling in an infringement lawsuit against Microsoft Corp. That ruling, which determined how broadly Intertrust patents should be read, led Microsoft to license Intertrust's patented rights-management technologies for $440 million.

Intertrust Chief Executive Talal Shamoon said in an interview that the Apple lawsuit was the company's first since it buried the hatchet with Microsoft.

One of the company's original goals had been to unite the fractured consumer-electronics and tech industries behind an interoperable approach to protecting streamed and downloaded music and movies.

Although Intertrust fell short in that effort -- in part because Apple wouldn't participate -- the standards-based "trusted computing" platform it developed for securely sharing content has been embraced by numerous TV and device manufacturers in Europe and Asia.

Intertrust's patents cover fundamental technologies that enable third parties to write apps that work safely with computer and mobile operating systems, Shamoon said. They also cover the ability to keep video secure on a device. To maintain a "walled garden" of apps and content for its devices, Shamoon said, Apple "used a lot of our patents."

Tech companies such as Apple are frequent targets for patent-infringement lawsuits. For every high-profile battle between titans, such as Apple's fight with Samsung, there are many more that involve small companies challenging a big firm's products. That kind of lawsuit has led some of the country's top tech companies to push Congress for more protection against patent "trolls" that they say are stifling innovation and economic growth.

Intertrust is tiny in comparison to Apple -- it has fewer than 100 employees -- but it isn't a patent troll, Shamoon said.

The company makes and sells products (typically software development kits for its rights management and trusted computing technologies), while also developing new applications for trusted computing in the cloud.

Among other projects, Shamoon said, Intertrust is developing a way for advertisers to send pitches to mobile devices through a cloud-based service that preserves consumers' anonymity while still enabling highly personalized targeting.

An Apple spokeswoman didn't respond to a request for comment, and its attorneys have yet to file a response to Intertrust's complaint.

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Healey writes editorials for The Times. Follow him on Twitter @jcahealey

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