A lawsuit in Germany in which mobile handset maker Samsung is attempting to force its rival Apple to remove the VoiceOver screen reader function from its iPhone smartphones in the country has been halted by the courts.
VoiceOver allows users to have content on the screen read aloud to them. It is marketed as an accessibility aid for blind and visually impaired users, since it can help people use and navigate an iPhone by touch and audio alone.
In a case first brought in December 2011, Samsung had tried to argue that VoiceOver on the iPhone, which has been a standard feature on all iPhones since 2009, infringes on one of its patents. VoiceOver is built-in to a range of Apple products – including Mac computers, iPad tablet computers and some iPod mp3 players – but Samsung’s claim relates only to the iPhone.
Titled “speech output device for data displayed on mobile telephone converts data from display into speech data for output via loudspeaker”, Samsung claimed patent covers the act of pushing a button on a mobile device and having content from the screen, including both text and icons, read out through speech.
Apple argued that they are not in breach of Samsung’s patent, as VoiceOver’s speech output is triggered by tapping the screen of an iPhone and not a button. However, Samsung then brought a second infringement case, arguing that triple-pressing the ‘Home’ button while in VoiceOver also causes content to be read out from an iPhone screen.
Last week, the Mannheim Regional Court in Germany ordered a ‘stay’ or suspension on proceedings, after it found the way Samsung presented its case for the alleged patent was invalid.
Discussing the case with E-Access Bulletin, Florian Mueller, a patent and intellectual property analyst who has followed the case, said: “The stay is based on the court’s assessment that everything the patent discloses already existed at the time Samsung applied for this patent, so the court expects the patent ultimately to be deemed invalid for lack of novelty.”
The next stage is for the Federal Patent Court to rule on the case, which Mueller believes is unlikely to happen before mid-2014. The federal court could dismiss the case, but if they were to support Samsung’s claim, Apple could be forced to remove VoiceOver from iPhones sold in Germany, meaning that blind and visually impaired iPhone users in the country would no longer have access to the feature. Alternatively, the court could partially support Samsung’s patent claim, and allow Apple to retain VoiceOver on the iPhone, but with modifications that keep it from infringing on the patent.
Mueller (who has written about the case and the ruling on his blog, Foss Patents: bit.ly/XEtgvy ) told E-Access Bulletin that “It’s unfortunate that a patent that relates to accessibility was chosen by Samsung as a potential tactical weapon … I wouldn’t have considered it inconsiderate for Samsung to ask the court for damages, but seeking a sales ban, which could have resulted in the removal of the feature, is what I take issue with”, he said.
In a statement on the case, Robin Spinks of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) said: “VoiceOver on the iPhone has provided an unparalleled level of access to mobile devices for blind and partially sighted people all around the world. Any situation which might threaten the existence and continuing development of that functionality would represent a clear injustice.”
Both Samsung and Apple declined to comment when asked by E-Access Bulletin. The episode is just one of a long series of court battles over patents between the two companies, now running to 50 actions pending in 10 countries.