— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney
Nintendo has been making headlines recently. The gaming industry is in mourning over the unfortunate passing of Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata last week. Iwata was instrumental in the success of the Nintendo Wii, among other Nintendo creations, and was known for his accessibility to fans.
Nintendo was in the news again this week for a patent litigation victory. The gaming company was sued by Quintal Research Group for alleged patent infringement. Quintal argued several Nintendo products, including the Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance, infringe Quintal’s patent.
Quintal’s patent, which expired in 2011, relates to handheld computing devices, and particularly to “a portable handheld communication device for rapid retrieval of computerized information.” The Quintal patent describes a handheld device with a display screen and ergonomically placed finger controls, including thumb controls “symmetrically arranged” on either side of the display screen.
Some drawings from the Quintal patent depicting the handheld device:
Certainly, Nintendo’s handheld devices also have a display screen and ergonomically placed finger controls.
The district court judge granted Nintendo’s motion for summary judgment, finding the Nintendo devices do not infringe the Quintal patent. According to the judge’s ruling, the case turned on the definition of “symmetrically arranged,” as that term is used in the Quintal patent claims.
In order to argue that Nintendo infringed the Quintal patent, Quintal had to show that Nintendo’s devices meet every element of the Quintal patent claims. The claims require thumb controls “symmetrically arranged” on each side of the display screen. Quintal argued that “symmetrically arranged” refers merely to placement or location of the controls on the device—that they are equidistant from the screen. Nintendo, however, argued that “symmetrically arranged” thumb controls means thumb controls that are mirror images of one another, having the same size and shape. The judge agreed with Nintendo’s definition.
As shown in the images above, the thumb controls (numbers 166) of the Quintal device are indeed depicted as symmetrically sized and shaped. In stark contrast, thumb controls on either side of the screen of the Nintendo devices are not at all mirror images (the cross-shaped button is different in size and shape from the opposing A and B buttons on the Game Boy Advance, for example). Therefore, Quintal could not show that Nintendo’s devices meet every element of the Quintal patent claims.
The case serves as an important reminder of the sometimes contrasting processes of (1) obtaining a patent and (2) enforcing a patent. Narrow claim limitations added to overcome patent office rejections may render the claims so narrow that competitors can easily overcome them in later litigation. During the process of obtaining its patent, Quintal added the “symmetrically arranged” language to its claims for the purpose of overcoming a prior art rejection in the patent office. Quintal’s device was patentable because the buttons were “symmetrically arranged.” Ultimately, it was that same language that defeated Quintal’s infringement contentions.