Adobe-Macromedia suit: Born to settle?

Legal analysts don't expect Adobe's case to reach a decision in the courts

Adobe Systems's patent infringement claim against rival Macromedia is not the first move in the battle for the graphics application market. However, the suit that Adobe filed last week over interface elements in Macromedia's software is the first step of what could be a long dance in the courts.

Such cases are not uncommon in the corporate world, and the "overwhelming majority" end in settlement rather than decision, legal experts told ZDNet News.

The Adobe complaint, filed in US District Court for the district of Delaware (where both Adobe and Macromedia are incorporated), claims that Macromedia infringed a US patent assigned to Adobe in 1996 that describes a method for "displaying multiple sets of information in the same area of a computer screen".

In practical terms, the patent describes the ability to pull and recombine tabs from floating palettes (not the inclusion of tabbed palettes themselves) in an application's user interface, this ability has become an increasingly central element of Adobe's graphics applications as they standardised on a common-look interface since 1996.

Adobe has even taken the extraordinary step of devoting a Web site to the suit.

In a news release, meanwhile, San Francisco-based Macromedia categorically denied the lawsuit's claims. "The claims made in the Adobe lawsuit are without merit," the statement said. A Macromedia representative told ZDNet News the company's comments are currently limited to that release.

In its complaint, Adobe alleged that, beginning in 1996, it sent cease-and-desist letters to Macromedia in response to the latter's inclusion of "tabbed palette" features in products such as the now-defunct xRes 2.0 image editing application and a beta version of the vector-based FreeHand 7. The complaint also alleges Adobe sent Macromedia three more cease-and-desist letters between April 1997 and May 1999.

However, Macromedia said in its news release that it advised Adobe, in separate responses to both the initial 1996 and final 1999 letter, that it believed Adobe's patent invalid -- and, furthermore, that Macromedia's products did not violate that patent.

Michael Painter, an intellectual property lawyer and partner at the Los Angeles law firm of Isaacman, Kaufman and Painter, said both sides will find it difficult to prove their cases. "On one side," he said, "there's the legal presumption that a patent is valid, and the defendant has to prove by clear and convincing evidence that it's invalid." However, he added, "the plaintiff has to convince the judge that the defendant is performing the patented process step-by-step."

"Substantially more of these cases are settled prior to trial than are tried," Painter said, "mainly because both sides have too much to lose."

"In my experience -- though that's far from a significant statistical sample -- nine out of ten patent cases are settled rather than go to trial," he said.

Go to Pt II/ Settlement or trial?

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