Sunday, October 03, 2004

Recent complaint about patent examination quality involving old news

I noticed the following text on the internet complaining about faulty US examination in the case of technology for geometric remapping of photographic images. Although the text is recent, the controversy with Professor Dersch goes back to 1999, and there was a Federal Circuit decision in 2001.

Recent text-->
Most of the mathematical problems involved in handling panoramic images were largely solved some time ago, and in particular were incorporated into the freely available 'Panorama Tools' software first written for DOS by Professor Helmut Dersch. More recently there have been controversial US Patents that have claimed his prior work for a commercial company, followed by legal threats that forced him to take his software off of his own web site, but it remains widely available on the web. 'Prior art' should always rule out patent applications, but there is an unfortunately long history of the US Patent Office failing to recognise a lack of originality in some 'American' inventions. Occasionally such mistakes are eventually recognised and the patents declared invalid.

Separately, from the internet

I believe that their prior lawsuits and threats against others were
centered around their patents. IPIX US patents include: 5,313,306,
5,185,667, and at least two others. Some of their claims are quite
broad, suggesting that any geometric remapping of a fisheye image is
their invention. There is considerable prior art that would seem to
invalidate these broad IPIX claims. Variations of fisheye image
geometric remapping type systems have been used in aerospace, aerial
photography, submarine periscopes, flight simulation, planetarium
projection, etc. As an example, one system from the early 1970,s used a
6 mm Nikon fisheye lens in a F-111 aircraft to view wing extension
simultaneously on both sides of the aircraft while also providing star
image data. Two particularly relevant prior art references that would
appear to completely invalidate the broad IPIX patent claims include:

Ripley, D., DVI - A Digital Multimedia Technology, Communications of the
ACM, Volume 32 Number 7 (July 1989)

This paper describes an interactive computer based system that
dynamically extracts perspective corrected views from images filmed with
a Nikon 220° fisheye lens.

Lippman, A., Movie Maps: An Application of the Optical Video Disc to
Computer Graphics, Siggraph Conference Proceedings (1980)

This second paper describes an early VR system that used either a set of
4 cameras or a single donut image camera that captured the complete road
system in a small town. The viewer could travel down any of the roads in
several different seasons and see perspective corrected views. The
single camera system could use either the Nikon 6 mm f2.8 fisheye lens
or the Kern Peri Apollar lens to record a full 360 degree horizontal

IPIX was granted the controversial patent back in 1993, when it was going by the name TeleRobotics International. Essentially, the patent covers spherical images created using fisheye camera lenses. Using a fisheye lens, a photographer can shoot a 180-degree image, or all of the scenery in a half-sphere in front of him. IPIX's software lets photographers weave two complementary 180-degree photos into a 360-degree panorama.

The problem with the patent, say experts, is that the techniques it covers were well known and well publicized years before the patent was granted.

"Cartographers and photogramatists have been familiar with the principles of image projection onto three-dimensional surfaces for years," said Andrew Davidhazy, chairman of the department of imaging and photographic technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

In particular, a widely read 1986 academic paper published in an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers journal covered all the basic techniques later patented by IPIX, experts say.

Because there was substantial "prior art," IPIX competitors contend that the patent does not stand the test of law.

That's what David Ripley, CEO of IPIX competitor Infinite Pictures thought, anyway. When IPIX sued Infinite Pictures in 1996 for patent infringement, Ripley confidently headed to court in IPIX's home state of Tennessee.

"We went to trial against a Tennessee company before a jury of Tennessee folks," he said. "We had a biased jury, but frankly, in their defense, patent law should never go before a jury. Those people's eyes were glazed over, and they didn't have a chance of understanding what was going on."

Infinite Pictures plans to appeal to the Federal Circuit Court this fall, and Ripley is confident his company will prevail.

He may have cause for optimism, patent lawyers say.

"The federal appeals court often overturns jury cases," said Robert Sachs, a partner in the intellectual property division at Fenwick & West, a Palo Alto, California, firm that specializes in law for high-tech companies.

Nevertheless, Sachs said, the court tends to be deferential to the jury decision, because the jurors heard and evaluated all the experts and witnesses.

The IPIX patent, he said, is written in broad language that is subject to interpretation. The drafter of the IPIX patent didn't specify precisely how the components of the patented IPIX system interconnect, instead using general language such as "means for receiving digitized signals."

The appeals courts have tended to find that such patents apply only to the relatively narrow range of techniques the patent holder actually employs, Sachs said. Because IPIX accused Infinite Pictures not of literally infringing on its techniques, but of making equivalent technology, IPIX may have a hard time in the appellate court. It will come down to a battle of experts, Sachs said, noting again that the appeals court has tended to defer to the jury ruling because the jury saw and weighed all the expert testimony.

Still, he said, "I would not want to bet a company on this patent."

But IPIX has bet its future on the patent. If it loses, it could be in big trouble.
Unlike most software companies, which simply sell their products for a one-time fee, IPIX has built its business around a per-use model. Every time a photographer uses IPIX software to save an image, he has to pay IPIX up to $25, depending on whether the image is of high or low resolution. The fees have previously ranged as high as $100.

At the moment, many photographers are willing to pay the fees, if grudgingly, because IPIX is the fastest, easiest way to make a spherical image.

"Their advantage is ease of use," said Scott Highton, a pioneering VR photographer who helped both IPIX and Apple Computer develop VR software. If there were any viable alternative, however, even if were more cumbersome, photographers would gladly take it, he said.

Viable alternatives may be on the way -- whether or not IPIX prevails in its patent suit. Several companies, including Infinite Pictures and Panoscan, have introduced new technology that lets users create spherical images without using fisheye lenses.

"There are other kinds of technology that can provide better virtual environments," said Ken Turkowski, a senior research scientist at Apple Computer and a virtual reality pioneer. "IPIX can't touch those whatsoever."

**Federal Circuit

IPIX Wins Copyright[sic: patent] Infringement Suit
by Realty Times Staff

Internet Pictures Corporation (Nasdaq: IPIX - news), the global leader in mission-critical imaging solutions, today announced that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has upheld a patent infringement jury verdict of $1 million against Infinite Pictures, Inc (DBA iMove, Inc.). The court confirmed iPIX's patent rights covering the transformation of fisheye, equirectangular or equivalent photographic images into perspective corrected immersive images.

iPIX sued Infinite Pictures, Inc. in September 2000 for infringement of its patent (U.S. Patent 5,185,667) covering a technique for converting photographic ``fish eye'' images into a distortion corrected view, allowing a user to ``step inside'' and navigate within an image. The jury held the iPIX patent valid and infringed and awarded iPIX $1 million in damages. Infinite Pictures appealed the decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The appeals court affirmed in all respects the jury's verdict and held that Infinite Pictures' SmoothMove Panorama Web Builder, which aligned and seamed three images into a 360-degree panorama image in an equirectangular format, infringed the iPIX patent.

``What is particularly important about the holding of the court is that it agreed with iPIX's theory of infringement based on the doctrine of equivalents,'' said Robert F. Altherr, Jr., attorney for Banner & Witcoff who represented iPIX. ``The court agreed that SmoothMove's equirectangular panorama file, though not an image obtained directly from a fisheye lens camera, was substantially similar to it, and that decision was upheld on appeal.''

In addition to the award of $1 million in damages, Infinite Pictures is prevented from marketing products based on the infringing technology.

Published: December 27, 2001

**from a 10-Q report for IPIX in July 2004:

Over the past few years, we have restructured the Company around our higher gross margin businesses. We are now organized into three market focused business units: IPIX Security, IPIX AdMission and IPIX InfoMedia.

IPIX Security: Supplies Full-360 video surveillance technology for critical government and commercial security applications. Patent protected technology used in digital video systems that provide complete and continuous situational awareness.

IPIX AdMission: Enables local advertisers with the means to create rich, visual ads showcasing their businesses, products and services. The AdMission platform is implemented on a large scale for managing media across the Internet. It allows advertisers and consumers to successfully conclude commercial transactions by communicating the value of advertised goods and services through accompanying media.

IPIX InfoMedia: Provides for creation of Full-360 degree panoramic photography and movies content. Markets are professional photographers, ad and creative media agencies, Web developers and visual documentation.


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