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Patent case challenges Microsoft's 'AutoPlay'

Federal judge rules against software giant in a case that focuses on technology for automatically loading software from a disc.

A federal judge ruled against Microsoft on Wednesday in a patent suit challenging "AutoPlay" technology included in recent versions of Microsoft Windows.

Judge Jeffrey White of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California denied three Microsoft motions for summary judgment in a suit filed by TV Interactive Data (TVI), a small Monte Sereno, Calif., company specializing in interactive television technology.

Each motion sought to invalidate TVI patents cited in the case, on grounds of prior art and other causes. White ruled Microsoft offered insufficient evidence against the patents, and the case should go to trial as scheduled.

TVI filed the suit in 2002, alleging that AutoPlay technology included in every PC version of Microsoft's operating system since Windows 95 infringes on its U.S. patents 5,795,156 and 6,249,863.

AutoPlay examines the contents of a CD-ROM or other type of optical disc that is inserted into a Windows PC and automatically executes the most appropriate task, such as launching the installation program for a new software application.

Both TVI patents cover a "host device equipped with means for starting a process in response to detecting insertion of a storage media" and describe an "autostart driver in the host device (that) detects insertion of a storage media into a peripheral and automatically starts an application."

Still pending is a Microsoft motion to dismiss key claims in the suit, based partly on the theory that the TVI patents are hardware-dependent and that Windows, as a purely software product, therefore cannot directly infringe on them. The motion also seeks a ruling that any Microsoft infringement of TVI's patents is not willful, because there is no evidence Microsoft knew of the TVI patents before the suit. As evidence to the contrary, TVI notes that its first patent is cited as a reference in the Microsoft patent. A hearing on that motion is set for Dec. 17.

"We're confident in our case and await the judge's decisions," Microsoft spokeswoman Stacy Drake said. A TVI executive did not respond to a request for comment.

TVI is being represented by Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, the Minneapolis law firm that won a $521 million judgment against Microsoft earlier this year in the Eolas patent dispute surrounding Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser. The TVI case is one of a handful of patent suits cited in Microsoft's most recent quarterly financial statement. The software giant recently won a case challenging its SmartTags technology.