Apple is currently embroiled in a lawsuit in the US against AliveCor over the Apple Watch’s ECG capabilities; a fight that could see some of the best smartwatches banned from being imported and sold in the country.
AliveCor alleges that Apple has infringed on its patents for heart-monitoring medical devices and that infringing products (like the Apple Watch 8) should not be sold in the United States after the United States’ International Trade Commission (ITC) ruled in their favor Front.
Additionally, President Biden recently decided not to veto the ITC’s decision (opens in new tab) – which would have given Apple an instant win. While these types of vetoes are rare, President Obama vetoed an import ban on iPhones and iPads after the ITC ruled that Apple had infringed on Samsung’s patents.
However, Apple has so far avoided a ban as several factors still speak in its favour. First, Apple has told TechRadar that it will appeal the ITC’s decision — an appeal it could win — and second, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) has ruled that key patents in AliveCor’s ITC case are invalid (i.e. regarding inventions that should not be patentable). AliveCor is understandably appealing the PTAB decision, but while those appeals are resolved, Apple Watches will not be banned in the US.
And if you look at history, Apple will likely manage to avoid a ban on its smartwatches, regardless of whether it wins the lawsuit or not.
Lose the battle, win the war
Apple is no stranger to patent disputes, having dealt with Samsung, Motorola, Qualcomm and others in the US and UK over the use of patented technology. It has also lost and settled its fair share of cases, but has not yet been banned from selling its devices outright.
In the UK, Apple lost some of its appeal (opens in new tab) against a ruling that it infringes on technology developed by a company called Optic Cellular Technology, and in the US it has settled with Qualcomm over apparent patent infringements Apple committed on Qualcomm’s technology. In the Optis case, the judge ruled that Appel simply had to acquire a global license for the patented technology, and as part of its settlement with Qualcomm, Apple agreed to a six-year license agreement.
Based on these cases, if Apple loses its lawsuits against AliveCor, it may be able to avoid a ban on the Apple Watch simply by licensing the technology it’s accused of stealing. Alternatively, if that’s not possible, Apple could “win” by simply changing the technology in future Apple Watches.
Such litigation can drag on for years. In its fight against Samsung, Apple began litigation in 2011 and a verdict was not rendered until 2016, while the Optis case was originally brought in 2019 but the final appeal decision was rendered in late 2022.
So if they don’t come to an agreement, Apple and AliveCor will likely bicker and appeal for a while longer – giving Apple ample time to develop and launch new Apple Watches. Apple could design these new wearables to avoid limitations stemming from the dispute by using other ECG technologies or by omitting ECG features altogether.
A war on several fronts
We’ll have to wait and see what legal decisions are made, but it’s very likely that you can still buy some sort of Apple smartwatch in the US regardless of the outcome of the Alivecor vs. Apple case. However, AliveCor isn’t Apple’s only concern.
Apple Watch is also being sued over Apple Watch technology by Masimo, which claims the blood oxygen sensors in the Apple Watch 6 and later infringe its patents. As in the AliveCor case, the ITC ruled in favor of Masimo, with a decision on an import ban expected in May this year.
As Apple continues to try to improve the health technology in its devices — it recently took steps to develop a stitch-free blood glucose monitor, for example — we wouldn’t be surprised if more disputes surfaced with Apple being both sued and sued. The ITC’s decision in the AliveCor and Masimo cases could set a pattern for how similar disputes will be decided in the future.
We’ll be keeping a close eye on the various cases, and if decisions are likely to affect your current or future Apple Watch, we’ll update you.