Bear and Monkey smack Apple with patent suit
Emphasis on UI
Apple has been slapped with another patent infringement lawsuit - but the suit says more about the festering sore that is the US patent system than it does about the individual patents involved.
The lawsuit was filed by Austin, Texas inventor Eric Gould Bear, President and CEO of interface design firm MonkeyMedia. The core of his infringement claim is that his patents cover a user-interface concept that he calls "Seamless Contraction" - essentially a set of techniques to narrow the display of information to that which is most "salient", to use his term, to the user's needs.
What Gould Bear refers to as "Non-Salience Deemphasis" a more casual observer might call summarization or emphasis.
Each of the five are entitled "Computer User Interface with Non-Salience Deemphasis" (although number 6,335,730 spells that last word "De-Emphasis"). Each also lists Eric Gould as the inventor, although the assignee - owner - of the the original patent is New York University (1997); the follow-on, Eric Gould (2001); and the most-recent three, MonkeyMedia (2001, 2001, and 2002).
Gould Bear's suit calls out three Apple infringements. First is Mac OS X's little-used Summary Service, which - as its name might suggest - allows you to summarize text blocks, with a slider allowing for a greater or lesser degree of summarization. Second is the ability of Apple's Safari browser to offer a variable summarization of articles listed in its RSS reader.
These features, according to the suit, violate claims of patents 6,177,938 and 6,219,052 that refer to UI controls which control the "shrinking of the display" of some objects in order to emphasize other objects. In the body of the two patents, text is included among examples of objects that can be "modified" or "abstracted" to display only the "salient segments".
The third allegedly infringing Apple offering is the combination of Mac OS X's Front Row and DVD Player apps, which the lawsuit claims infringe upon patent 6,335,730's essentially identical description of less-important objects being shrunken and more important objects being emphasized which Front Row does, to some degree.
"We can sit by and watch Apple continue to use our patented inventions without paying, or we can do something about it," Gould Bear said in a press release announcing the lawsuit. "Synergy between inventors and manufacturers is healthy, and we love that Apple believes in our technology. We simply prefer open communications and fair compensation."
Gould Bear's sentiments are remarkably similar to those of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. "We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it," Jobs commented when launching Apple's suit against HTC. "We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."
What's really important here are neither the intricacies of patent language nor a plaintiff's near-parodistic gauntlet-throwing, but instead the increasingly obvious fact that patents are being granted for the wrong reasons, allowed to become far too sweeping, and - perhaps - being approved by USPTO staffers not sufficiently familiar with the technologies and concepts involved.
Although your humble Reg reporter would never claim to be well-steeped in the abstruse complexities of patent law, it does seem that patenting summarization and emphasis in UI design may not fully be in harmony with the US Constitution's stated reason for patents: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts." ®
When the IP Innovation v. Red Hat/Novell patent trial is dismissed due to prior art, and that prior art was a fully functional Amiga 1000 from 1986 you know that the whole US Patent system is totally broken as that patent should never have even been filed, let alone granted.
People are registering "patents" which are just rubbish and they are basically trying it on hoping that they will get their day in a Patent friendly court house.
The problem with patents...
...is and always has been that the legal system does not seem to want to accept inventions described in engineering terms. Often they are translated into legalese by replacing common engineering terms like CPU, bus etc with bizarre clauses like 'a computing sub-system in the aspect of appendix A.1' and 'and apparatus for the transfer of information from a computing sub-system in the aspect of appendix A.1 with a data storage subsystem in the aspect of appendix A.2'. After 'legalisation' don't be surprised if your nice little 2 page spark of genius (which was actually quite a nice idea) has ballooned to become a 20 page amorphous blob of stream of concious gibberish.
I suspect that a large number of named inventors do not understand the patents which have been created for their inventions. For the same reason, I think it is likely that most lawyers would not understand the original pseudo-code, UML, block-diagram or whatever other form the original specifciation took. Probably the only people who do understand both the invention and the patent are the relatively small number of patent specialists who also happen to be trained engineers).
The reason Latin was used to much in the legal system is the same reason Latin used to be used in exams in Cambridge - because it kept the un-educated masses out of the system. Although most legal documents are now in English the idea of making the language as obtuse and difficult to follow seems to have lingered on, which brings me to the rub...
We have a system which translates ideas into a form of language which seems to have evolved to make comprehension as difficult as possible, and then we use these translated ideas to sue each other. It actually begins to look like the legal profession invented the whole mess for the sole purpose of creating the maximum amount of business for themselves.
My suggestions are simple...
We trust the medical profession to regulate itself using it's own language, by people who are experts in the medical domain rather than exclusively lawyers (see GMC, FDA etc) so why not the same principle for engineering.
If engineering specifications are good enough for contracts between corporations then they should be good enough for patents. Likewise, since almost all patents and inventions are essentially engineering in nature, arbitration in disputes should be done by a panel of engineers rather than a colony of lawyers**.
Of course... this will never ever happen.
** the correct collective noun for a group of lawyers is 'an eloquence' but I couldn't bring myself to use it. Alternative suggestions welcome.
How about they just stop granting software patents? Software is already protected by copyright, which IMHO is really more appropriate.