Apple coughs $5m for multitouch patents

Fights for years then pays out pocket change


Following more than 30 months of argument, Elan Microelectronics has announced that Apple will be paying it $5m for use of its multitouch patents.

Elan filed its case back in April 2009, claiming it had been trying to negotiate with Cupertino for two years. It then took the complaint to patent watchdog the International Trade Commission (ITC) in March 2010 and received encouragement from that body a month later. Now it seems Apple has capitulated and will be licensing the Elan patents.

$5m isn't a great deal of money to Apple, certainly compared to the damage that could be done if the ITC had decided that a US import ban was appropriate. This sounds a little like paying off the patent holder rather than fighting to the bitter end, but that would be very unlike Apple unless there was a real risk of defeat.

The patent (US number 5,825,352) covers the recognition of multiple touch points, but restricts itself to their use in "emulating mouse buttons and mouse operations on a touch sensor pad". So it hits the MacBook pad and the Magic Mouse, but would be more difficult to apply to the broader touchscreen devices where it's debatable that any mouse emulation is occurring.

Which betrays the patent's roots: it was originally filed by Logitech back in 1996, before changing hands several times and ending up with Elan in 2003.

Not that Elan is a patent troll by any means - the Taiwanese company makes touchpad and touchscreen components for OEM manufacturers, and routinely acquires patents to protect itself. In this case it's also making a few quid from infringers, but that's not the primary business.

The case rumbled on for ages, and (as is common with these things) once everyone had rattled their sabres and played all their cards, a cheque for an amount lower than the claim was written, and everyone went home. For Apple this is small potatoes, and there are much bigger patent battles to be fought.

Not that $5m is to be sniffed at; Elan will be very pleased with itself, and looking around for others who might be encouraged to reach for their cheque books now that Apple has folded. ®

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