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HTC gets Face Unlock patent, could stir up an internal Android legal war

April 5, 2012

We’ve been hearing about patents, patent wars, copyright infringement, and so on for a while now, yet today is probably the first time we will be talking about a potential patent-related conflict inside the Android camp.

HTC has apparently been granted a patent on Face Unlock, the facial recognition software offered by Google in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Something doesn’t feel right about that phrasing, so I’m going to try to say this a different way. HTC has gained approval for a patent that covers “a method for unlocking a locked computing device using biometric information”. So, what does that mean exactly?

Well, considering the fact that HTC has filed for this patent back in 2008 and Google has introduced Face Unlock in 2011, it might seem that we’ve got ourselves in a bit of a conundrum, which could be solved in a couple different ways.

Could HTC gain exclusive rights on Face Unlock?

Even though this is a question that may only get a definite answer in a court of law, as far as I’m concerned, HTC’s executives could do pretty much anything they want with Face Unlock. They could even sue Google, which might lead to an Android civil war that pretty much no one expected until now.

On the other hand, I think the guys at HTC are smart enough to know that Google is their partner, and not an enemy (at least until the launch of the awaited Nexus tablet this summer), so the targets of HTC’s patent-induce wrath might actually be different.

Samsung was the first one to have a device featuring Face Unlock a few months back, and, considering the level of competition we expect between Sammy and HTC over 2012, it’s possible that the Taiwanese will either forbid the Koreans to use the feature, or they will hit them with some significant licensing fees.

Even though Face Unlock is not that popular right now, and will probably not make Samsung smartphone adopters want to change manufacturers over night, there is still a lot at stake right here. Just think about the work that Samsung (or other manufacturers with Android 4.0 devices right now, for that matter) will have to put into disabling Face Unlock on their devices!

Getting back to the HTC patent in question, if you’re into that stuff, you can read all the legal definitions right here, but trust me, all in all, I don’t think that anyone can contest the fact that this characterizes Face Unlock by the letter.

On the other hand, there are a couple of subtle differences too, one being the fact that the patent also seems to cover using fingerprint sensors. In other words, if anyone decides to include a fingerprint sensor instead of facial recognition in future smartphone or tablets, they will most likely have to obtain HTC’s prior blessing.

The other difference is that, while ICS’ Face Unlock requires you to type in a password to unlock the device when the device doesn’t recognize the user, HTC’s patent allows you to store the unknown mugshot in the list of faces allowed to access the phone once you have typed the password once.

So, what do you guys think? Could we be heading for an ugly internal Android legal battle between HTC and Samsung or even Google? Or will the companies quietly agree on licensing and avoid a public spectacle?  Please let us know in the comment section!