Tulsa-tied technology part of latest Samsung-Apple court battle

Michael Freeman, a co-creator of FirstLook Video in the early 1990s, sits next to two Heartland Regional Emmys at his Tulsa office. CORY YOUNG / Tulsa World

Apple, Samsung and their assembled teams of lawyers continue to do battle in court.

Both sides are accusing the other of violating competing patents. At stake are potentially billions of dollars in damages and a possible ban on the sale of popular devices.

When Samsung Group kicks off its offensive against Apple Inc. next week, the first salvo will come in the form of a video patent developed by a team of Tulsans.

Michael Freeman is scheduled to be the first witness called by Samsung in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif.. He, along with his father Richard Freeman, his brother Mitchell Freeman and Chad Boss created FirstLook Video, a way to efficiently transmit video data over cellular signals, in 1993.

"We were the first ones to merge computers and cellphones," Freeman said.

Samsung, which bought the FirstLook patent a decade ago, plans to argue that Apple's FaceTime videoconferencing technology violates that patent.

Freeman said it's an honor to be called to testify about the technology, which won its creators and the KFOR-TV news team in Oklahoma City two Heartland Regional Emmys for spot news and special engineering in 1994.

"It's interesting that the technology that was developed in Oklahoma is being used in this big lawsuit," Freeman said.

FirstLook Video, a device the size of a bread box, worked by compressing video data and transmitting it all at once over multiple cellular lines, not just one. That allowed for faster transmission when cellular technology was much slower than today.

Their patent request was met by an unusual amount of skepticism for patents of that era, Freeman said.

"Before we got the patent issued, they believed it couldn't be done, so they made us fly out to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate it," he said.

Dan Threlkeld, a former chief meteorologist for KJRH in Tulsa and an employee of KFOR during the use of FirstLook, said the technology was amazing at the time.

"To kids this may seem like the covered-wagon days, but at the time this was like someone showed us a teleporter on Star Trek," he said.

Back then, capturing footage of a tornado involved driving expensive satellite trucks into the storm, Threlkeld said. With FirstLook, storm footage could be beamed back to the studio from anywhere, without having to rely on special vehicles.

Because cellphones, streaming video and the Internet weren't yet mainstream in the early 1990s, the FirstLook devices were initially marketed to broadcasters, Freeman said. The video compression and transmission patent at the heart of the device, No. 5,579,239, continues to be referenced in newer patents, with 10 references in Apple patents since 2009. Many other companies, including Nokia, Canon, Hewlett-Packard and Panasonic, have also referenced the patent.

Samsung also accuses Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple of violating a patent covering camera and folder organization. The South Korean electronics giant is seeking damages of $6.8 billion and possible sales bans.

Apple, for its part, has accused Samsung of violating patents for the creation of quick links for things like the ability to dial phone numbers in emails, universal search of a device and the Internet at the same time, data syncing, the slide-to-unlock function and word suggestions for autocorrect, according to filings in the same court. Apple is seeking damages from $33 to $40 per device, or up to $2 billion.

Freeman said he's ready for whatever the trial brings. He now runs Tulsa-based Semitrex LLC.

"I lived it and we developed it," he said. "I'm comfortable with anything they ask me."

Lawsuits' background

1993: Michael Freeman, Richard Freeman, Mitchell Freeman and Chad Boss create FirstLook Video.

April 2011: Apple sues Samsung for the first time, alleging its tablets and smartphones infringed on Apple's patents, trademarks, user interface and style. Samsung counter-sues.

February 2012: Apple sues Samsung again, asserting Samsung infringed on five patents. Samsung counter-sues, claiming Apple violated two of its patents, including that for FirstLook Video.

August 2012: A jury finds in favor of Apple for the first lawsuit and awards damages of $1.05 billion, although it is reduced to $290 million in November 2013.

April 2014: Second trial scheduled to begin.

Robert Evatt 918-581-8447

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