Apple is once again under fire in the courts over a key feature in one of its products, but in this case a recent lawsuit has been filed not because of how poorly a feature works, but actually how well it does its job.
Dr. Joseph Wiesel, a cardiologist at New York University, is filing a patent infringement lawsuit against Apple, claiming that the atrial fibrillation detection feature found on the Apple Watch uses a heartbeat-monitoring invention that he patented back in 2006 and that he shared with Apple a year before the company introduced the feature.
According to Bloomberg, Dr. Wiesel, who teaches at the NYU School of Medicine, file the lawsuit against Apple last Friday in a federal court in Brooklyn. In the suit, Wiesel is claiming that the Apple Watch infringes on his patent for a method to detect an irregular heartbeat.
The specific technology in question is the ability of the Apple Watch to detect atrial fibrillation, a feature that Apple has been heavily promoting since the release of the Apple Watch Series 4 in the fall of 2018. While the Apple Watch has been able to measure heart rate since the very first model, it wasn’t until the release of watchOS 5 that Apple added the ability to measure and notify users of the kind of irregular heart rhythms that are often a sign of atrial fibrillation, or AFib.
With the watchOS 5 update, Apple brought this capability to Apple Watch models as far back as the Series 1, while the Apple Watch Series 4 also added the necessary hardware to perform a basic electrocardiogram (ECG).
Since Apple introduced the irregular heart rhythm monitoring feature only 14 months ago, there have been countless reports of it saving lives, plus studies that have shown that it works with 97% accuracy at detecting the condition that frequently goes undiagnosed for years due to its intermittent nature.
According to Dr. Wiesel, however, the technology that Apple is using to accomplish this was actually first discovered by him. Wiesel notes that his invention, which he received a patent for in 2006, covered “pioneering steps” in detecting atrial fibrillation by monitoring “irregular pulse rhythms from a succession of time intervals.”
This of course sounds very much like how the Apple Watch also works to detect atrial fibrillation, although it’s difficult to see how it could be done any other way. Atrial fibrillation is a condition that results in an irregular heart rhythm at seemingly random intervals, which is the very reason that many people live with the condition for years without it ever being detected during normal medical exams — odds are good that it won’t be happening at the exact moment that a doctor puts his stethoscope up to your chest, or a nurse measures your pulse.
Wiesel said that he first contacted Apple in September 2017 — a year before the feature appeared in watchOS 5 — providing the company with detailed information about the patent, but that Apple “refused to negotiate in good faith to avoid this lawsuit.” Wiesel is asking the court to order Apple to pay him royalties, or failing that to block Apple from using his invention without permission.
Patent lawsuits are of course nothing new to Apple, but a great many of the battles its been embroiled in over the years have been with “patent trolls” — purely litigation companies that simply buy up blocks of patents in order to try and extract big payouts with no intention of actually using those patents in actual products.
In this case, however, Wiesel is the actual inventor of the technology in question, and the timing makes it look even more like Apple was at least inspired by his patent. However, simply getting an idea from a patent is not necessarily patent infringement, and in order to prove his case, Wiesel will still have to demonstrate that Apple’s actual implementation of the irregular heart rhythm monitoring feature on the Apple Watch is very similar to his own invention, rather than something vaguely similar that Apple created on its own.