Apple Continues Health Patents Throughout Watch Legal Battle

Apple continues to build its “war chest” of defensive patents as the Masimo battle pulls it’s two newest watch from shelves.

Photo of an Apple patent for their vertical oscillation tracker
Photo via U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

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After a years-long patent legal battle with health devices company Masimo, Apple was forced to halt sales of two Apple Watch models, removing the devices from online stores Thursday and physical stores by Sunday. The move anticipates a ban on models with a blood oxygen sensor, after the International Trade Commission ruled in October that Apple violated Masimo patents. But the legal battle hasn’t stopped Apple from continuing its patent spree for other watch-related health tech.

Apple filed a handful of patent applications for Apple Watch-related health tech inventions, looking to gain dominion over everything from heart monitoring to runners’ statistics to sleep tracking. Apple wants to patent: 

  • A system for tracking “biomechanical triggers” for improved responsiveness to “grade estimation.” This takes in data from a wearable device tracking things like cadence data, speed data and elevation data, to determine the grade that the user is traveling on 
  • Tech to track the “vertical oscillation” of a user, or the amount that a person’s torso moves vertically with each step. This uses machine learning that relies on sensor data tracking “acceleration and rotation rate” of a user; 
  • Methods for “sleep state tracking” using motion tracking with a wearable device. This system determines if a user is in a “rest state” or “activity state” over multiple periods of time using movement data;
  • A “stride length estimation and calibration” system, which tracks a user’s cadence and speed data to determine how long a user’s steps are; 
  • And a “cardiac monitoring and management” system, to determine a user’s “cardiac burden.”  This collects and stores cardiac measurements over time to track how hard your heart is working during a given period, as well as to determine if the wearer is having a cardiac event. 

Additionally, Apple wants to patent a system to generate “customized personal health ontologies,” which is essentially an electronic health record that includes data collected and stored in its health app. 

All of these patents rely on data collected from its smartwatch via biometric sensors, keeping track of things like heart rhythm, blood pressure, motion, orientation and more.

Over the past few years, Apple’s watches have become best-sellers for their health tech features, said Romeo Alvarez, director and research analyst at William O’Neil. Alvarez noted that the company’s smartwatch revenue has grown from $9 billion five years ago to $17 billion this year, though that’s still only 4% of the company’s annual revenue.

Apple has a few paths forward, Alvarez said: The company could continue the legal battle; build and patent technology that works around Masimo’s patent; or come to a settlement. “If Massimo wins the case, it’ll set a precedent of a small company actually defending its patents against a bigger company like Apple,” he said. 

But a case like this is particularly unique, said Micah Drayton, partner and chair of the technology practice group at Caldwell Intellectual Property Law. For one, patent litigation is incredibly costly, he said. The founder and CEO of Masimo, billionaire Joe Kiani, has spent $60 million fighting Apple, according to Forbes. 

Apple is more likely to face patent litigation from other smartwatch makers such as Samsung, Drayton noted, rather than medical tech companies. Smaller device companies generally don’t have the money or resources to take on the goliath that is Apple, Drayton said. “This kind of a threat, I would expect, is not a typical threat for them,” he said. 

So how could Apple prevent having to pull items off the shelves in the future? One option is continuing building its “war chest” of defensive patents to counter-sue in legal battles, Drayton said. With Apple’s pile of health-related patents to track users while they move, sleep and breath, it looks like the company is already prepared for that reality. 

That said, this factor is what makes Masimo “kind of a weird case,” Drayton said. “It’s not really doing anything else that looks like what Apple’s doing, so Apple doesn’t really have a good way to counter-sue it.”