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Bear and Monkey smack Apple with patent suit

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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.

The three patents referred to in Gould's lawsuit are USPTO 6,177,938, 6,219,052 and 6,335,730. Each are subtle varients of a set of five patents - add 5,623,588 and 6,215,491 to complete the set.

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." ®

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