It all hinged on the meaning of a single word.  Last year, the English Patents Court decided that several Android smartphones manufacturer by Taiwanese company HTC Corporation didn't infringe a UK patent owned by Dutch security company Gemalto.  The decision turned on the meaning of just a single word: "microcontroller".   The Court of Appeal has recently upheld the Patent Court decision.

The patent dates back to 1995.  It relates to smartcards, such as Chip & PIN cards and mobile SIM cards.  The inventors had come up with a way of running a cut-down version of the Java platform on a smartcard, so as to make it easier for developers to write a single software application (e.g. an electronic wallet application, or a leisure-centre loyalty-card application) that would work across many different smartcard platforms. 

The patent claims are directed to a "microcontroller" comprising memory.  An interpreter and a suitable software application are loaded into the memory.

Gemalto decided to sue HTC for infringement of the patent, on the basis that HTC's Android smartphones contain a Java-like interpreter which executes Java-based applications.  The key question was whether the separate processor chip and memory chips in HTC's phones could together be regarded as a "microcontroller", as claimed, or whether the word "microcontroller" necessarily refers to a singlesilicon chip that integrates both processor and memory.

HTC prevailed, with the Patents Court deciding that HTC's separate processor and memory chips were not a "microcontroller" as claimed.  Gemalto appealed this decision, but it was upheld by the Court of Appeal last month.  In fact, the Court of Appeal interpreted the term "microcontroller" even more narrowly than the original trial judge had, finding that it wouldn't cover a chip that integrated a processor and memory if the chip also accessed off-chip memory.  However, this narrower definition did not affect the outcome: HTC were found not to infringe.

This case serves as a useful reminder of the power of each and every word in a patent claim, and of the care that is therefore required by the patent attorney when crafting a definition for an invention.