Apple has landed its way into another patent lawsuit, this time with Florida-based software company CustomPlay. CustomPlay claims that Cupertino is infringing on its patent with a Siri feature in the fourth-generation Apple TV. The feature allows owners of the set-top box to rewatch a portion of a video with closed captioning. The news broke this morning and was reported by MacRumors.
What Did He Say?
Owners of the fourth-generation Apple TV can ask, “What did he say?” or a similar question using the Siri Remote. The set-top box will respond by rewinding the television show or movie by 10 to 15 seconds, then resume playing with closed captioning temporarily turned on.
Max Abecassis, the owner of CustomPlay, says he invented that concept first. He might actually be right, looking at U.S. Patent No. 6,408,128 B1. The patent application was filed in 1998 and granted in 2002. While it was clearly intended for DVD players, the functionality for a digital set-top box is the same. Read the excerpt from the patent description and compare it with the video above, and judge the similarity for yourself.
remote control capable of activating a replay function comprises a WHAT? button, key, or other replay function key or means, to enable a viewer by activating the replay function to automatically cause the system to: i) rewind or skip backwards the playing of the video a system default or a viewer specific previously defined amount, e.g. 20 seconds; ii) turn on the subtitle to a system default or a viewer specific previously selected subtitle language, e.g. English; iii) turn off the subtitle at either the point the WHAT? button was pressed or at some viewer specific previously defined point with respect to the time at which the WHAT? button was pressed, e.g. five seconds prior to, or after, the point the WHAT? button was pressed; and iv) increase the audio/dialog volume during the segment replayed.
Thus, advantageously, by, for example, the pressing of a single WHAT? button or issuing, a single word command, a viewer accomplishes a function which cannot be accomplished, as efficiently and elegantly, with the pressing of at least three buttons in, for example, the operation of the RCA RC5200P DVD player.- U.S. Patent No. 6,408,128 B1
Perhaps Not Just Another Patent Troll
We see plenty of patent trolls going after Apple, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. CustomPlay has actually used and licensed this technology to others, including apps like PopcornTrivia, CustomPlay, and OneScreen, for televisions and other connected devices.
Furthermore, CustomPlay claims it contacted Apple about licensing the feature to Cupertino in 2014. Abecassis sent several follow-up emails to Apple CEO Tim Cook later that year. Whether or not Apple ever responded isn’t clear at this point.
CustomPlay is also associated with Nissim Corporation, an apparently non-practicing entity also owned by Abecassis. Nissim sued Apple in September 2016 for infringing on seven DVD specification patents, and the case was settled out of court in December 2016.
Apple Might Actually Be in the Wrong This Time
Apple’s not infallible, and I’ve never made any claim to that. Usually, though, I roll my eyes at any patent lawsuit against Cupertino. That’s purely because in my non-researched estimate, nine times out of ten, the patent lawsuits are frivolous and/or just plain wrong.
I don’t think that’s the case here, assuming Abecassis and CustomPlay are being honest with their claims. If CustomPlay did approach Apple about a licensing agreement for this specific technology, Cupertino surely did its research and realized that feature was alread patented. If so, Apple willfully breached CustomPlay’s intellectual property and should pay damages and legal costs for the patent lawsuit.