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Are Surfcast flying too close to the Sun? An Apple connection is used to find potential prior art to a patent being asserted against Windows 8

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New York based Surfcast are suing Microsoft over the tiles used in the recently released Windows 8 products, and which are also seen in tablets and smartphones incorporating the latest Windows operating system.

The basis of this litigation is the Surfcast owned patent US6724403, which has a priority date of October 1999, and discloses:

a graphical user interface which organizes content from a variety of information sources into a grid of tiles, each of which can refresh its content independently of the others




But were Surfcast the first to patent this concept?

To help answer this question, we entered patent number US 6724403 into our patent search engine AmberScope, currently available in a free beta trial, and which employs the concept of Network Patent Searching to help find patents. This revealed a complex patent landscape, which may not that surprising given the current level of interest in user interfaces. In the picture below, the red circled dot shows the position of US 6724403, and the dots show all of the patents connected by backward or forward citations to this patent, along with a selected number of the indirectly connected patents

There are a number of ways we can analyse such a landscape. In this particular case, we chose to focus on the patents that were filed prior to the year 2001, and ranked all of the patents for their potential relevance to the Surfcast patent. AmberScope includes the ability to capture our rankings via a change in patent colour - in the diagram below red patents are ranked by us as having a relevancy score of 4 (out of a possible 4), orange patents have a relevancy score of 3, purple patents have a relevancy score of 2, and yellow patents have been read but not marked as relevant, 


It should be noted that none of these highly rated patents appeared to give a direct disclosure of the Surfcast patent. This is not surprising - if they did, being a known listed backward citation for the Surfcast patent, the Surfcast patent may not have been granted.

However the value of these patents is that they can guide us to other patents that may have been missed by the patent examiner for the Surfcast patent. In this case, one of the highly ranked prior art patents was US5479602 to Apple. This discloses: 

a method and means for generating and displaying a content-based depiction of a standard icon on the display of a computer



Which does differ from the Surfcast patent, but is a little bit similar.

Where it gets more interesting though, is what happen when the patent network is refocused on this Apple patent. This patent does not have that many connected patents, and one of them, a forward citation is US6988248 to Sun Microsystems (now owned by Oracle), and which has a priority date of June 1997.




US6988248 discloses the concept of a software 'container', where:

An animated indicator displays a graphical animation on the computer screen that represents a software container.....

 ...potentially including information such as amount, type, and activity of the container. As the state of the container changes, the animation routine may change accordingly. In this manner, users are presented with up-to-date and detailed information about a container represented by a small graphic pictorial. Thus, the user receives a continuous supply of useful information about the container without having to specifically select and view the container as a full screen representation.

The particular animation sequence is keyed to the software container represented, and may change as parameters of the software container change.

Which does appear to disclose some of the key elements of the Surfcast patent - suggesting that it could possibly be used to help invalidate the Surfcast patent.

This is a great example of the limitations of conventional patent searching based on keywords. Different patent applicants and attorneys can use different technical words for similar concepts. In this case, Sun used the term 'container' for a concept referred to by Surfcast as a 'tile'. But a rose is a rose by any other name, and this case, a 'container' has a similar apparent meaning to a 'tile'. Just to further confuse things, Apple in turn used the word 'icon' for the same concept.

How many patent searchers reading this would have used 'container' as a synonym for 'tile'? Or for 'icon'?

The example also highlights the inconsistent use of patent codes in this patent document. Consider the table below, which summarise these differences: 

comparison table2


So in summary, a search for earliers patents similar to Surfcast's US patent 6724403 using AmberScope has identified a Sun patent US6988248 that discloses a similar concept, that is connected to the Surfcast patent via an Apple patent. 

The search strategy for this search is shown below.


This case study is a great example of the additional value that AmberScope adds to your patent searching in additional to conventional techniques - and the dangers of relying on keyword or IPC searching alone.



Doris Spielthenner developed NPA™ patent analysis after recognising the potential to identify key patents and companies through a systematic analysis of their citation linkages.

Doris has also worked in business relationship analysis for a range of business sectors including the pharmaceutical, law enforcement, and infrastructure tendering in Europe, the United States and Australia. As a pioneer in the field of relationship analysis Doris has published in a number of business journals, including the Pharmaceutical Executive, the Intellectual Property Magazine and Nature Biotechnology. Doris has also invented the concept for a reality TV series, based on social networks which has been shown in Germany and Austria.


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