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MS sued over Win CE patent clash

US inventor alleges Microsoft nicked his pen-based data input technology

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Updated Microsoft has been sued by a US inventor who claims the company infringed patents he owns which cover the entry of handwritten data into a computer using an "electronic pen". The suit also targets Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, Casio and Sharp, which inventor Mitchell Forcier belives Microsoft sold its allegedly patent-infringing to. Forcier's patents were filed in 1993 and centre on the use of so-called electronic ink to input data into a computer. Electronic ink is essentially a bitmap generated from the movement of the stylus. The bitmap can then be analysed and converted into Ascii text. That's how devices like Apple's Newton MessagePad and, to an extent, Palm's eponymous line of handhelds work, but it's curious neither company is named in Forcier's suit. Forcier claims he developed this approach for a former employer, Aha! Software. The company then sold the technology on to Microsoft -- violating a confidentiality agreement, says Forcier -- which dsitributed it to the other named parties in turn. All five firms offer Windows CE-based machines, so it must be that OS' data entry system that Forcier has in mind. Ironically, Sharp was a Newton OS licensee before it switched to Windows CE. What makes CE different from other pen-based systems remains to be seen. The suit demands all five companies cough up damages to cover lost profits and royalty payments Forcier claims he should have received. It alse requests the companies cease to use his invention. Update Microsoft acquired Aha! Software back in 1996, clearly to get hold of its electronic ink recognition technology: "Aha! has come up with a very innovative way to deal with the handwriting recognition problem by manipulating handwriting in its ink form as though it were actual computer text," said Microsoft VP Paul Maritz at the time. Aha! was formed in 1991. At the time of the Microsoft acquisition, it had developed what it called SmartInk, which "overcomes handwriting-recognition obstacles by enabling people to edit their original ink handwriting in the same manner that they edit text with a word processor", according to company releases of the period. Microsoft used SmartInk to form the basis of the InkWriter application that ships with the palmtop-oriented version of CE. What's most important is that back in 1996, SmartInk was described as "patent pending". Clearly the company filed its own patent on the technology at roughly the same time Forcier did himself. It's fairly common practice for companies to file patents on behalf of staff. If that's the case here, Forcier must have believed he took ownership of the SmartInk patents when Aha! ceased to exist as an entity in its own right. Microsoft's case is likely to centre, then, on Aha!'s ownership of the patents, which, through the acquisition, it now owns and can do with as it sees fit. The Register would be the first to admit it's a bit weak on US patent ownership law, and we'd be glad to hear from anyone who has an idea of how it works. ®

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