According to a recent report, Sogou Inc. filed a patent infringement lawsuit with the Beijing Intellectual Property Court, asserting that Baidu Inc.’s "Baidu Input Method” infringes input-related patents owned by Sogou Inc.

This lawsuit:

  • is patent litigation involving a very popular Internet concept;
    • involves parties who are leading players in the Chinese input method market;
    • involves eight patents as well as a claim for damages in the amount of RMB 80 million (a new record for Chinese Internet patent infringement litigation in terms of both number of disputed patents and damages claimed). 

Undoubtedly, we are in for a very eye-catching patent war.

As observers, we must first learn something about Input Methods (IM) in general and Chinese IM in particular.

The invention and creation of Chinese IM can be divided into two categories.

The first category is the invention and improvement of the Chinese character encoding method, which is the core of Chinese IM by which users can input Chinese characters using a computerized system.

If it is merely the Chinese character encoding itself that has been improved; for instance, if a new Chinese character encoding method was created, we must first consider whether or not such a creation is qualified for protection under the Patent Law.

The Guidelines for Patent Examination specifically provide an introduction and a definition (in Chapter IX Part II) for a "Chinese character encoding method":  

"The Chinese character encoding method is an information presentation method analogous to presentation methods for voice signals, language signals, visual display signals and traffic signals, among others. What it solves is merely determined by a human expressing his will; what it adopts is merely man-made coding rules; and what is obtained by implementing the coding method is merely a symbol/alphanumeric string. The solved problems, the utilized means, and the obtained effects do not comply with the laws of nature. Therefore, invention applications relating merely to Chinese character coding methods should be classified as rules and methods for mental activities as provided for in Article 25.1(2), which are not appropriate objects of patent protection. "

Given that the Chinese character encoding method itself is not an appropriate object of patent protection, how can patent protection be acquired for Chinese IM-related technologies?

If a Chinese character encoding method is combined with a keyboard that is specific to such method to form a Chinese input method or a Chinese character information processing method enabling a computer to process Chinese characters and run applications on demand in Chinese characters, thereby controlling or processing external  or internal objects, then this method should be considered an appropriate object of patent protection.

Investigations suggest that IM invention patents that have been granted and announced so far were all created in combination with keyboards for computers or other smart devices (whether physical or virtual keyboards).

On the other hand, Chinese IM-related technologies are far from satisfying for users if they are used merely as encoding tools. A well-developed IM requires efficiency complementing peripheral technologies in order to enhance user experience.

Accordingly, patented technologies peripheral to IM exist in the following areas:

  1. Data processing designed to improve Chinese input efficiency: For example, character /character string error correction, or intelligent predictive input;
  2. Database management: The maintenance and update of lexicons; and innovative and efficient query tools;(3)   Data transmission relating to lexicon sharing via the Internet, such as Cloud, a popular concept at present.

The items described above can be categorized into computer data processing / transmission invention patents, which are familiar to everyone.

This article provides a simple illustration of the patents of IM-related technology. Since patent warfare centering on Chinese input methods has only recently been ignited by Sogou, we will just have to wait and see how it develops in the future.