Adobe Slaps Lawsuit on Macromedia

Adobe's lawsuit against Macromedia gets at the conflict between interface standardization, which users benefit from and expect, and a company's right to use interface design to differentiate its brand -- which is the exact opposite of standardization.

By Nico Detourn
August 11, 2000

Graphics and printing software developer Adobe Systems (Nasdaq: ADBE) filed a lawsuit Thursday against rival Macromedia (Nasdaq: MACR), alleging patent infringement. The third-largest PC software maker in the U.S. says Macromedia was notified on "several occasions" that its products infringed on Adobe's patent, and that the legal action comes as a "last resort."

The "look and feel" suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Delaware, seeks a jury trial on Adobe's requests for damages along with an injunction preventing Macromedia from using a similar design in its Flash 5.0 software, set for release in September.

Macromedia has categorically denied Adobe's claims, calling them "without merit." However, rather than addressing the issue of similarities between its and Adobe's interface, Macromedia's position appears to be that Adobe's patent is "invalid and unenforceable," a position it has maintained since Adobe first raised the issue in 1996, the company said yesterday in response to the suit.

Adobe was awarded the 1996 patent for the "tabbed palette" feature of its graphical user interface, or GUI. The pallet is a space-saving method for displaying information on the computer screen, allowing users to customize how features are organized in their workspace. "Adobe will not be the R&D department for its competitors," the company said in a statement.

Look and Feel
The most celebrated "look and feel" software case was Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) 1988 claim that Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) infringed on the Macintosh GUI by using similar icons, windows, and other displays in its Windows operating system. The circumstances of that case -- which Apple ultimately lost -- were different, due mostly to certain licensing agreements between the two companies. But the underlying issues are essentially the same, and get at the conflict between interface standardization, which users benefit from and expect, and a company's right to use interface design to differentiate its brand, which aims at the exact opposite of standardization.

At a website set up by Adobe as an information source about the issue, the company offers visual examples of Macromedia's alleged infringement, claiming legal action is necessary because elements of its interface are "heavily associated with the Adobe brand" and "are a major competitive advantage and a significant reason why customers purchase our products." The lawsuit says "Macromedia is now touting its 'new Macromedia UI' as a selling point for forthcoming releases across its entire product line."

Adobe's position is that Macromedia has knowingly infringed in the use of a similar design. As evidence of this, the court filing says Macromedia asked the audience at a March industry conference if the interface feature "looked familiar?" -- a reference to "the similarity between the Macromedia UI, including tabbed palettes" and the Adobe user interface.

Macromedia allegedly repeated the comparisons at two other industry conferences in June. Court papers also refer to a July ZDNet article where Macromedia's VP said the Flash 5 "graphical interface is similar to Adobe's Photoshop."

Your Turn:
Do you think Adobe has a case against Macromedia? Where is the line drawn between the user benefits of "a better mousetrap" and a company's right to control the use of its design innovations? Interface with fellow Fools about these graphic issues on the Adobe and Macromedia discussion boards.

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