Taiwan firm hits Apple with multi-touch patent lawsuit

Claims MacBooks, iPhone and iPod Touch infringe two patents, seeks triple damages

A Taiwanese company that makes touchpads sued Apple Inc. in U.S. District Court Tuesday, charging that the California firm's multi-touch technology infringes two of its patents, according to court documents.

Elan Microelectronics Corp. of Hsinchu, Taiwan, alleged that Apple's laptops, iPhone and iPod Touch -- all of which offer multi-touch features -- infringe on patents it owns, and has asked the court to force Apple to pay triple damages and a "reasonable royalty."

Apple's multi-touch technology lets MacBook, iPhone and iPod Touch owners use multiple-finger gestures on the trackpad to operate some features. On the iPhone, for example, sliding two fingers together shrinks an image, while moving them apart enlarges it.

The MacBook Air, launched in January 2008, was the first Apple laptop to implement multi-touch. Since then, Apple has added the functionality to its MacBook and MacBook Pro lines as well.

"The '352 patent is a fundamental patent to the detection of multiple fingers on a touchpad or touch-sensitive input device to enable the detection and use of a multi-finger gestures in various applications," said Elan's lawsuit, referring to Patent 5,825,352, which was issued in 1998 to Logitech Inc. Elan claims it now owns the patent.

In fact, that patent was at the heart of a dispute between Elan and a U.S. rival, Synaptics Inc. in 2006. At the time, Elan won a preliminary court injunction against Synaptics; last year, that lawsuit, and Synaptics' countersuit, were both dismissed after the companies reached a cross-licensing agreement.

"Apple has been on notice of its infringement of the '352 patent since early 2007," said Elan's filing, "and has continued to utilize the '352 patent invention without authorization. In addition, the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch also permit users to switch the capacitive touchscreen between keyboard and handwriting modes, and thus falls under the scope of the '353 patent."

Patent 7,272,353, titled Capacitive TouchPad Integrated With Key and Handwriting Functions," was granted to Elan in September 2007.

Elan's lawsuit did not specify a dollar amount it seeks from Apple, but asked the court to triple the actual damages and require Apple to pay royalties.

Apple spokeswoman Susan Lundgren declined to comment on the lawsuit.

This isn't the first brouhaha over multi-touch involving Apple. In January, Tim Cook, Apple's chief operating officer, who is running the company in the absence of CEO Steve Jobs, made a veiled threat against other smartphone makers. When asked how Apple would ward off rivals, including the upcoming Palm Pre, which features multi-touch, Cook said: "We are watching the landscape. We like competition-- as long as they don't rip off our [intellectual property] and if they do, we're going to go after anybody that does."

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