Apple Awarded Controversial Multi-Touch Patent, Set to Lose App Store Case

Apple is in the news for two separate but related events in which the consumer electronics giant is trying to shore up its lead using legal means rather than superior products. The company was this week awarded a controversial multi-touch patent that many people seem to misunderstand. And separately, a judge indicated that she was about to hand Apple a stinging legal defeat in its App Store challenge against online retailer

Three years after it filed for a patent for "a portable multifunction device with a touch screen display," Apple was awarded that patent in a decision by the US Patent & Trademark Office that some onlookers suggest gives the Cupertino company broad ownership of a "capacitive multi-touch interface." That sounds damaging to the many other consumer electronics and PC companies that are using similar interfaces. But it might not be as broad as some believe.

According to an interesting report in PC Magazine, Apple's newly awarded multitouch patent is far more specific and narrow than most understand. That is, the patent isn't for a multi-touch, capacitive interface, or for a touch screen more generally. Instead, it really just covers a specific set of gestures that can be used to navigate around web pages on a mobile, touch-screen device.

Whether the patent is broad or narrow, one thing is certain: Apple is a litigious company and aggressively pursues competitors that it feels are infringing on its property. And that's true whether the claims are legitimate or bogus.

Case in point: District Judge Phyllis Hamilton said in a federal court in Oakland on Wednesday that she would review Apple's complaint that's use of the term "App Store" violates an Apple trademark. But she noted that Apple had a "stumbling block" in proving that anyone would actually confuse Amazon's Appstore for Android with Apple's App Store (for the iPhone and related devices). In fact, she says Apple will almost certainly lose this argument.

Apple claims that Amazon is unlawfully using the term "App Store" and has asked a federal court to bar the retailer from using the term for its online store. However, Amazon, Microsoft, and many other firms have argued—correctly—that "App Store" is a generic term for a store that sells apps and that Apple cannot own or protect such a term. Judge Hamilton appears to be well on her way to ruling in favor of that argument, noting Apple's utter lack of evidence to the contrary. She said Apple would "probably" lose the case, but she needs to study some accompanying documentation first.

"I'm troubled by the showing that you've [Apple has] made so far, but that's where you're likely not to prevail at this early juncture," she said during a hearing Wednesday.

Apple, for once, was silent and offered no comment on this development.

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