Thursday, March 08, 2007

Google Prevails in Earth Patent Dispute

Yesterday, Judge Douglas Woodlock of the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismissed the patent infringement claim by Skyline Software Systems against Keyhole, a digital mapping company that Google bought in 2004 to help create Google Earth. The judge didn't address the question of whether Skyline's patents were valid in the first place, leaving the parties until April 20 to argue that point if they wish.

Skyline filed the infringement claim back in May 2004 against Keyhole, with Google becoming a party to the suit after it purchased Keyhole in October of 2004. The patent at issue is Patent No. 6,496,189, which was issued in late 2002 and covers:
A method of providing data blocks describing three-dimensional terrain to a renderer. The data blocks belong to a hierarchical structure which includes blocks at a plurality of different resolution levels. The method includes receiving from the renderer one or more coordinates in the terrain along with indication of a respective resolution level, providing the renderer with a first data block which includes data corresponding to the one or more coordinates, from a local memory, and downloading from a remote server one or more additional data blocks which include data corresponding to the one or more coordinates if the provided block from the local memory is not at the indicated resolution level.
In plain language, this sounds like a patent for taking lots of pictures of the Earth's surface at different zoom levels and connecting them all together so that one can zoom to increased levels of resolution. Sounds pretty obvious and, of course, you don't (or at least shouldn't) get patents for obvious things. This might be why the judge didn't grant Skyline an injunction that would have shut down Google Earth last year.

The Tech Liberation Front has a nice post on the obviousness of Skyline's patent, saying that such hierarchical data organization is standard practice and is similar to how flight simulator programs (which have been around for a long time) render terrain. Such things would be better protected by copyright, which would protect the actually source code of a process like this and allow Skyline to go after those who copied their code, rather than just making it difficult for others to implement a pretty basic computer programming idea.

Avi over at Brownian Emotion says that he helped write the Keyhole/Google software and questions whether Skyline knew what it was talking about when it applied for the patent, arguing that the patent is awfully vague and looks more like Skyline was simply claiming the right to eventually create a product like Google Earth, whenever they figured out how to do it. This idea seems to play out upon reading the judge's decision.

To prove patent infringement, the patent holder "must show that the accused device contains each limitation of the asserted claim, . . . or an equivalent of the limitation." Beckson Marine
Inc. v. NFM, Inc., 292 F.3d 718, 724 (Fed. Cir. 2002). If any claim limitation is absent from the accused product, "there is no literal infringement as a matter of law." Bayer AG v. Elan
Pharm. Research Corp., 212 F.3d 1241, 1247 (Fed. Cir. 2000).

The court found that Skyline's patent wasn't infringed as a matter of law. Because the judge couldn't find a "renderer" in Google Earth in the way described in the patent, Google was not infringing that claim of the patent. Even if elements of Google Earth performed the same function, but did so in a different manner, it wouldn't be infringement. Here the judge gets creative, analogizing coffeemakers and French presses with satellite imagery:
However, identifying a set of tasks which are performed is not the same as identifying an object which performs a set of tasks, even if the end result is the same. Consider, for example, a coffeemaker. If a "coffeemaker" is defined as "an object that (1) heats water by means of electricity, (2) causes ground coffee to come into contact with said heated water, and (3) keeps resulting liquid warm," a standard drip coffeemaker would clearly qualify. One might argue over whether an espresso maker would qualify. It is clear, however, that a method comprised of a person heating water in an electric kettle, manually pouring the water into a French press full of ground coffee, and keeping the resulting cup of coffee warm on a desk hot plate would not qualify as a "coffeemaker," even though all of the steps described were performed. If the steps are not performed by a single entity, there is no "object," and hence no "coffeemaker." Similarly, even if all of the steps described as part of the renderer are performed at some point in the Google Earth code, a contention disputed by Google, Skyline has pointed to no evidence that an identifiable "renderer" exists.
Thus, you can patent a coffeemaker, but that doesn't bestow the exclusive right to make coffee.

The judge went on to distinguish the claims in the patent from what Google Earth does, indicating throughout that Google wasn't literally doing any of the things in the patent and that Skyline failed to show any proof otherwise.

Skyline v. Keyhole and Google, Amended Complaint.
Skyline v. Keyhole and Google, Answer and Counterclaims.
Skyline v. Keyhole, Decision (March 7, 2007).

Update (3.9.07): Avi has a far more technical explanation of the decision and explains why Judge Woodlock should be commended for doing a great job on the case. While it's a victory against a hastily granted patent, he laments the fact that a smaller company would probably have been forced to settle given the resources required to fight bogus patent claims.
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