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Trolls and victims watch Supremes for definition of meaningless patents

Fitness kit case will explore just how broad a patent can be before it becomes useless

A patent dispute over a fitness technology running in the US Supreme Court will decide just how vague a patent has to be before it becomes meaningless.

The long-running lawsuit (it was first filed in 2004) is between iron-pumping-powerhouse Nautilus and bio-monitoring specialist Biosig. Biosig's original complaint was that Nautilus violated a 1994 patent, by building a heart-rate monitor into a fitness machine.

The Biosig patent, US 5,337,753, described a hollow cylinder with spaced electrodes. However, it didn't stipulate the spacing of the electrodes, stating only that “a first live electrode and a first common electrode mounted on said first half in spaced relationship with each other; a second live electrode and a second common electrode mounted on said second half in spaced relationship with each other;”

That was the basis of the first decision in the case, with the original trial court deciding that “did not tell me or anyone what precisely the space should be”. In other words, the court believed that the patent had been drafted to be ambiguous, to cover as many technologies as possible in the future.

That decision has kept the case bouncing around and dragging on, with the original decision reversed by a Federal Court decision on the grounds that the patent wasn't so ambiguous that the product couldn't be built. With its original win now reversed, Nautilus has taken the case to the Supremes.

A decision isn't expected until June, but the case will be closely watched – particularly by patent trolls and their targets, since vague patents are often the basis for wide-ranging “attack everybody” lawsuits. As Reuters notes, if the final outcome means more detail has to be put into patents, it'll be easier to invalidate too-vague patents.

Which would probably not be a bad thing. ®

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