The newest models of the Apple Watch have been pulled from shelves across the U.S. due to an ongoing patent-infringement legal battle with the maker of blood-oxygen monitoring technology.
Christmas night was the deadline for President Joe Biden to step in and throw Apple a bone by overturning an October ruling by the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), but as was expected, the White House failed to do so. As CNN reports, that means the ITC ruling stands, and it's now up to Apple to appeal the decision in federal court or settle their dispute with Masimo, a medical device manufacturer.
At the heart of the dispute is the technology that underlies the light-based blood-oxygen monitors, called pulse oximeters, in the latest models of the Apple Watch — Series 6 or later — and Apple Watch Ultra. Irvine-based Masimo claims that Apple infringed on their pulse-oximeter patent, and in June, an administrative law judge for the ITC agreed, and in October, that ruling was made final by the ITC. The ruling meant that Apple had until the end of Christmas Day to remove its offending products from the marketplace — though third-party resellers are still being permitted to sell their remaining stock.
The Biden Administration was not expected to intervene, and this is just one of multiple fronts on which the two companies are doing battle in court. In September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed rulings in favor of Apple over other patents surrounding their smartwatches — the court ruled that "Masimo's patents were invalid based on earlier publications that disclosed the same inventions," as Reuters reported, and these included technology that measures heart rate and blood oxygen.
Masimo said at the time that the appeals court's ruling didn't pertain to the same patents involved in the ITC case.
Apple has been accused by Masimo's lawyers of "efficient infringement" — essentially deciding that it was cheaper to infringe on a patent than to try to buy the company outright. Masimo says that Apple first reached out to them about their pulse-oximeter tech in 2013, with an inquiry about how it might be used in a smartwatch. But, as the Orange County Business Journal reported, Apple would go on to hire away 20 of Masimo's employees, including Marcelo Lamego, against whom Masimo filed a trade-secret-violation suit that ended in Masimo's favor in November 2022. (Lamego left Apple in 2014 to start his own company, True Wearables.)
Anticipating that the October ITC decision would take effect without Biden's intervention, Apple began preemptively taking the Series 9 and Ultra 2 versions of the Apple Watch out of stock earlier this month.
"Apple strongly disagrees with the order and is pursuing a range of legal and technical options to ensure that Apple Watch is available to customers," Apple said in a statement this week. And they add that, the watches should be back on store shelves "soon."
Per CNN, on the technological front, Apple could potentially make software tweaks that change how the watches interact with the pulse oximeter, and then see if the ITC would accept these tweaks.
Masimo co-founder and Chief Executive Joe Kiani has been outspoken about his hope that the courts and the ITC will help "restore fairness in the market," citing other examples in which Apple has allegedly infringed on others' patents.
"We are happy that the administrative law judge recognized Apple’s infringement of Masimo’s pulse oximetry technology and took this critical first step toward accountability," Kiani said last January, when the first decision came down in their favor.
Some analysts say that they expect Apple may end up reaching a settlement agreement in which they agree to pay royalties to Masimo on all Apple Watch sales.
Photo: Luke Chesser