Would a Keyboard by Any Other Name Feel as Sweet? BlackBerry Sues Ryan Seacrest’s Typo

BlackBerry is suing Ryan Seacrest’s iPhone keyboard case company Typo for patent infringement. The suit – which also alleges trade dress infringement, dilution, unfair business practices and unjust enrichment – has garnered headlines in Canada and the US.

Dispute Details

The Typo Keyboard is a $99 iPhone case that attaches an extended QWERTY keypad to the bottom of the phone. The accessory’s keypad closely resembles that seen on BlackBerry devices.

Blackberry filed the lawsuit with the US District Court for Northern California, the home state of Typo’s operations. The filing accuses Typo of infringing keyboard patents 7,629,964, 8,162,552, and D685,775. BlackBerry is asking for an injunction as well as an eventual jury trial.

BlackBerry’s Position

BlackBerry’s claims rely on two main points, namely that the Typo keypad is a clear and intentional misappropriation of BlackBerry’s trade dress, and also that the trade dress is a key and distinctive part of Blackberry’s value proposition. (Trade dress is a term of art referring to an item’s visual characteristics which act as a source identifier. The concept is similar to the “distinguishing guise” in Canadian trade-mark law.)

“This is a blatant infringement against BlackBerry’s iconic keyboard, and we will vigorously protect our intellectual property against any company that attempts to copy our unique design,” said BlackBerry General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer Steve Zipperstein in a press release about the suit. “From the beginning, BlackBerry has always focused on offering an exceptional typing experience that combines a great design with ergonomic excellence,” continued Zipperstein. “We are flattered by the desire to graft our keyboard onto other smartphones, but we will not tolerate such activity without fair compensation for using our intellectual property and our technological innovations.”

BlackBerry’s filing outlines in great detail, and with images, its keyboard’s intentional design functionality. Shapes, curves and frets are all included in the intellectual property rights that BlackBerry holds and argues Typo’s keyboard infringes.

Typo’s Response

Typo argues that the QWERTY keyboard is too long-standing to be patented, and that they put significant work of their own into creating their product.

Typo initially responded with this comment to Mashable:

“We are aware of the lawsuit that Blackberry filed today against Typo Products. Although we respect BlackBerry [sic] and its intellectual property, we believe that BlackBerry’s [sic] claims against Typo lack merit and we intend to defend the case vigorously. We are excited about our innovative keyboard design, which is the culmination of years of development and research.”

Author Analysis

I have to admit, even as a BlackBerry fan, I found Typo’s initial messaging compelling. It seems unrealistic for there to exist a patent on a QWERTY keyboard slapped onto a mobile device. Surely the degree of ubiquity is such that any specifications can’t matter immensely.

BlackBerry’s filing, however, outlines the extensive thought and detail poured into its keyboard. Reading the filing is like catching a glimpse of the recipe for Blackberry’s “secret sauce”.

Lines like, “… the Bold featured the use of curved bars (referred to as “frets”) above each row of keys. Each of the keys in the top three rows is a roughly square shape, and arranged like the keys on a piano, without any significant space or material between them horizontally,” and “The Q10’s physical keyboard continues to incorporate bars above the rose of keys having the distinctive sculpted appearance of the thumb-optimized ergo-surf design,” make it apparent that the BlackBerry keyboard was not a happenstance success, but rather a major consideration in ergonomics and design.

More to the point, to me it seems as if the Typo keyboard is a direct replication of this design. In that opinion, I am not alone; the tech community also noted the similarities.

Even Seacrest hinted at the genesis of the Typo keyboard in this CNN interview. When the interviewer commented, “So it’s the best thing about the BlackBerry, within the iPhone,” Seacrest’s response was: “That’s kind of how this came to fruition.”

BlackBerry’s confidence in their claim is evident in their choice for jury adjudication. It takes a strong claim to believe that a citizen jury will appropriately comprehend the basis for a claim in a technology patent case. But again, based on the detail of BlackBerry’s intellectual property rights and the initial response of tech commenters openly admitting the design similarities of the devices, the claim appears to have merit.

From a legal perspective, the most rational response is likely for Typo and BlackBerry to settle, with Typo paying a portion of profits to BlackBerry in design royalties.

From a business perspective, however, BlackBerry may wish to take this to court to permanently shut down Typo’s production. In the grand scheme of the smartphone wars, allowing the existence of any product that allows non-BlackBerry devices to sport a Blackberry-esque keyboard is a threat to BlackBerry’s market share and profits. The smartphone market is intense, with companies involved constantly jockeying for positions better than the rest; BlackBerry could easily decide that committing to a legal battle and winning it outright is more important than ceding any ground that will undermine its competitive advantage.

Denise Brunsdon is an IPilogue Editor, a Western University JD/MBA Candidate, and researcher for GRAND (Graphics, Research and New Media) Centre and Commercialization Engine.

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