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Apple Sued Over Multitouch Patent

Apple just got served.

The iPhone maker will have 20 days to respond to a suit filed yesterday alleging that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) infringed on two multi-touch patents used in iPhones, iPod Touch and MacBooks, Sean DeBruine, lead lawyer for Elan Microelectronics, told InternetNews.com.

In the suit, Elan does not specify an amount of money, but does ask the court to triple the actual damages for what the company deems to be Apple's illegal use of its multi-touch technology since 2007. The document also requests an injunction on sales of the devices using what Elan calls "multi-finger" technology, which detects a finger on a touchscreen and lets users move their digits to zoom, rotate and perform other tasks.

DeBruine said that while the suit does call for Apple to stop using the technology, it isn't specifically asking the company to stop selling its products, per se. "We're saying stop using the patented technology, but we're not saying they can't sell iPhones, we don't claim everything in the iPhone is Elan's technology."

Still, the obvious implication is that current models of all of Apple's devices named in the suit would, in fact, be using the technology being called into question.

At issue are two multi-touch patents held by the Taiwan-based chip maker, which claims that Apple has been illegally using the technology. According to court documents, these are Patent No. 5,825,352 entitled "Multiple Finger Contact Sensing Method for Emulating Mouse Buttons and Mouse Operations on a Touch Sensor Pad," and Patent No. 7,274,353, called "Capacitative Touchpad Integrated with Key and Handwriting Functions."

According to the case filed yesterday in San Francisco's U.S. District Court, the suit alleges that "Apple has been on notice of its infringement of the '352 patent since early 2007 and has continued to utilize the patent invention without authorization. In addition, the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch also permit users to switch the capacitative touchscreen between keyboard and handwriting modes, and thus fall within the scope of the '353 patent."

It goes on to claim that Apple is infringing the patents by the sale of "at least its iBook, MacBook, iPhone and iPod Touch products."

As to what compensation Elan is seeking, it appears to be up to the court to decide. "It's up to the courts to assess, the patent law provides for a measure of damages that are not less than a reasonable royalty," said DeBruine. "The amount remains to be seen after the facts are evaluated, it would be premature to estimate."

The case specifically cites that damages awarded are pursuant to patent damage law 35 U.S.C. 284 that calls for adequate compensation that's not "less than a reasonable royalty."

While DeBruine can't comment specifically on the merits of this case, he did say "royalty or licensing agreements are not unusual outcomes for patent cases."

Apple did not return calls seeking comment.

Apple besieged

Two aspects of the case warrant consideration. First, Elan's victory over U.S. rival Synaptics last year could mean that the case has merit, as opposed to the many others filed suits against Apple. Last year, Elan won a preliminary court injunction against Synaptics, which had counter-sued it. The two companies later agreed to a cross-licensing deal allowing them to drop the suits.

And, second, Apple's acting CEO Tim Cook in January made widely reported comments that the company would go after Palm if the Palm Pre, to be released by June, encroaches on any of Apple's multi-touch screen patents.

It's not surprising Apple is defensive of its multitouch technology - its touch-screen feature is at the very core of Apple's iPhone success, which has prompted others to follow suit. Since the first iPhone came out in 2007, Research In Motion (NASDAQ: RIMM) rolled out the BlackBerry Storm while HTC and T-Mobile released the Android-based T-Mobile G1, not to mention the (NASDAQ: PALM) Palm Pre coming this summer.

In other touchscreen legal actions, an overseas communications firm is suing Apple for promoting its iPhone as a touchscreen digital book reader, a concept it claims to have patented over seven years ago.

Berne, Switzerland-based Monec Holding filed a suit earlier this month in a Virginia district court accusing Apple of patent infringement and unfair trade practices for allegedly copying its patent filed in 2002 titled "Electronic device, preferably an electronic book."

Finally, device owners have claimed in other lawsuits that the iPhone 3G didn't deliver on connectivity promises and before that Cisco and Apple tussled over the iPhone trademark.