However, there are opinions, and then there are facts. And when a widely read blog consistently posts false or misleading information, there is absolutely no good reason not to call them on it. This is particularly true when that misinformation has the potential to influence views in a matter of significant public interest, such as the debate over the merits (or otherwise) of patents for computer-implemented inventions (please note that I am deliberately avoiding the meaningless term ‘software patents’).
One blog with which I have a huge problem in this regard is PatentlyApple. For those unfamiliar with the blog, it is an overtly partisan celebration of all things (allegedly and actually) innovative at Apple, Inc. Occasionally, this involves spiteful attacks on all things (allegedly and actually) imitative at Apple’s competitors, such as Samsung and Microsoft. However, it is not these matters of opinion or rhetoric with which I have a problem.
My big issue with PatentlyApple is the way in which it consistently misconstrues and misrepresents the content and scope of the patents and applications – of Apple and others – which it purports to explain. The reason for this is simple – PatentlyApple is not written by a patent attorney. The fact is that it takes many years of training and experience to interpret a patent specification, and particularly the claims, which are ultimately determinative when it comes to assessing what the patent covers. And having typically spent a number of illustrated paragraphs purportedly explaining to a large audience what a patent application is all about, PatentlyApple’s disclaimer that it is necessary to read the ‘full text’ of the document to obtain complete details just does not cut it!
Every time PatentlyApple gets it wrong it helps to drive another stake into the heart of a patent system that is already under assault by a range of opponents. Most of the errors perpetrated by PatentlyApple are oversimplifications, or plain mistakes, over what a patent or application actually covers. It is no wonder, then, that some people reading those articles would form the impression that these are ridiculous patents, encompassing overly broad and/or obvious subject matter, which provide further ‘proof’ that the patent system is broken, and that ‘evil software patents’ should be abolished altogether. And there are readers who believe this – just read the comments on some PatentlyApple posts.
The irony is, of course, that by doing this, a blog which aims to celebrate Apple’s inventiveness is actually undermining the very system which enables the company to protect its investment in innovation.
The ‘Magic’ Charging iPad CoverIn its latest post (as at the time of writing), Apple Invents iPad Smart Cover with Built-In Inductive Charging, PatentlyApple asserts that Apple’s US application publication number 20130063873 ‘reveals the next step in the evolution of the iPad Smart Cover with built-in inductive charging.’
‘Simply put,’ says PatentlyApple, ‘this is a great idea to keep the iPad charged while on the go.’
Except that it is not. Correctly put, the invention claimed in the application does not do anything to make charging an iPad any more convenient when ‘on the go’. What it actually does is to enable bulky and unsightly power supply ports to be eliminated from the iPad itself, possibly leading to thinner, lighter, more attractive devices. But, in practice, users are still going to have to find somewhere to plug-in to recharge when ‘on the go’.
In one form, the invention is defined in claim 1 of the application as follows:
1. A protective cover arranged to protect at least a display of a tablet device, comprising:
- a body portion having a size and shape in accordance with the display, comprising:
- an inductive power transmitter arranged to wirelessly pass power to a corresponding inductive power receiver unit disposed within the tablet device by inductively coupling,
- at least a first magnetic element, and
- at least a second magnetic element used to secure the body portion to the display in a closed configuration, wherein in the closed configuration the first magnetic element is detected by a sensor disposed within the tablet device, the detection altering a current operating state of the tablet device; and
- an attachment mechanism for pivotally attaching the body portion to the tablet device.
This says that the invention is simply a cover, which includes an inductive coil positioned so that it can transfer power wirelessly into the tablet. The cover can be fixed to the tablet device by an ‘attachment mechanism’, and held closed by a magnet, while a second magnet is provided to enable the tablet to identify when the cover is closed, so that it can switch into a different ‘operating state’, e.g. one in which the battery can be charged using power received via the cover.
None of this, you will note, says anything about where the charging power comes from. As PatentlyApple rightly points out, the description suggests that it could come from an external power source (e.g. a charger), or from an additional battery located within the cover. However, most people would recognise that the idea of carrying around a second battery located in the cover is pretty impractical – who would want the extra weight, or a bulky-looking cover? And since inductive power transfer is typically somewhat less than 100% efficient, you would not even be able to use all of the power stored in that second battery (which would itself then need recharging).
Sure enough, there is no mention of secondary batteries in the claims. This suggestion was probably added by the patent attorney primarily to justify a broad claim 1, which does not explicitly say where the power comes from. After all, the specification tells us that there are multiple options! But when we get to claim 2 we find:
2. The protective cover as recited in claim 1, further comprising: a power line connecting the inductive power transmitter to connector arranged to connect the power line to an external power supply; and a ground line connecting the inductive power transmitter to ground, wherein when the protective cover is attached to the tablet device, a tablet device housing acts as a chassis ground for the inductive power transmitter.
So what the invention primarily achieves is simply to move the power connector from the tablet/iPad to the cover.
Now, I am not saying that this is not a clever idea, or that it should not earn Apple a patent. But what I am saying is that what the claimed invention consists of, and what it does, are quite different from the impression you would get from reading PatentlyApple. And most of the ‘analysis’ you will find there is no more reliable than this simple example.
Dastardly Copycats, Microsoft and Samsung!Take, for example, two nasty little attack-pieces published by PatentlyApple in the past couple of weeks, Slime Bag Microsoft Tries to Patent Apple's "Pinch and Zoom" and Hypocritical Samsung Tries to Patent Pinch & Zoom. Both posts accuse Apple’s rivals of dastardly acts of trying to ‘steal’ Apple’s innovative technology, for various nefarious or strategic reasons.
I want to be very clear about one thing right at the outset here – you cannot get a valid patent on something which already exists, whether or not it has already been validly patented by someone else. So this has nothing to do with whether or not Apple’s own ‘pinch-to-zoom’ patents are valid.
And there is nothing wrong with innovation which builds on other people’s patented innovations. That is how technology advances, and Apple is one of the great masters of this art. If your new invention requires access to somebody else’s patented technology to work, then you have the choice of seeking a licence, acquiring the patent (or the company, which Apple has done more than once), or waiting for the patent to expire.
But there is certainly nothing wrong with saying ‘here’s my new idea, and here’s a really good way to implement it using some existing technology as an element’. And that is exactly what is happening in the Microsoft and Samsung patent applications that have gotten PatentlyApple all hot under the collar.
Here is the main claim (i.e. claim 1) of the Microsoft application (pub. no. 20130055077):
1. A method for an application program to modify information displayed on a mobile device, comprising: displaying on the mobile device by the application program at least a first portion of a document; receiving input from the user, the input comprising an input to a touch screen of the mobile device; retrieving from a memory in the mobile device a document-related structure data associated with the document; and displaying on the mobile device by the application program at least a portion of the document-related structure data in place of the first portion of the document.
Now, I am not going to bore you with the details of what this claim is all about, or any discussion of whether it is new and inventive. But what you can see immediately is that there is no mention of pinching of zooming here. The claim says that input is received from the user, which causes some stuff to happen. If you want to find mention of pinching and zooming, you have to look at claims 2 and 3:
2. The method of claim 1, further comprising: receiving a second input from the user comprising a request to zoom-out from the document; and displaying at least a second portion of the document, wherein the second portion displayed is a superset of the first portion of the document.
3. The method of claim 2, wherein the second input from the user comprises a finger-pinching movement of two fingers on the touch screen.
This is not an attempt to ‘patent’ pinch and zoom. Claims 2 and 3 are known as dependent claims, i.e. they do not stand alone, but must be read in combination with claim 1, to which they refer back. What this says is ‘I have come up with something I think is a new invention (claim 1), and I think that a pretty good way to do it in practice is to have the user zoom on the document with a pinching gesture (claims 2 and 3)’.
Now, I am certain that no Apple aficionado would argue with the proposition that pinch-zoom is a pretty good user interface concept. The inventor would be lying to say otherwise!
The Samsung application (pub. no. 20130061171) is another example of exactly the same thing. Here is Samsung’s claim 1:
1. A display apparatus comprising: a display unit for displaying a User Interface (UI) having a size that varies in response to a user's manipulation of the display unit; and a control unit for changing a type of information displayed in the UI in at least one stage in accordance with a state of the manipulated size of the UI.
Again, the issue here is not whether this claim is itself patentable – that is for Samsung to argue over with the Examiner. The point is that the is no mention of pinching to zoom in this claim. For that, you must read on down to claim 5:
5. The display apparatus of claim 1, wherein the size of the UI is adjusted according to at least one of a pinch-in operation and a pinch-out operation.
‘Slime bag’ and ‘hypocritical’ are strong words. There is nothing wrong with using them, as a matter of opinion, but at the very least your argument should be based on facts rather than demonstrable falsehoods.
Catching Spammers and Stalkers?According to another recent PatentlyApple article, Apple Granted a Social Networking Patent that Filters out Spammers and Stalkers, Apple’s recently granted patent no. 8,396,932 is all about how a social networking platform can identify and deal with spammers and stalkers. No doubt the specification describes such features, and some of them may even be patentable (Apple could have other applications pending based on a similar description of the system). However, this is not at all what the patent in question is all about.
Here is claim 1 of the Apple patent:
1. A computer-implemented method for ensuring consistency in a friend service database comprising: detecting an operation which requires updates to a plurality of related friend state records; generating a key representing the operation; generating an entry in a write-ahead log database using the key, the entry specifying the updated friend state records and the type of operation to be performed on the friend state records, wherein the write-ahead log database is separate from the friend state records; attempting to update the plurality of friend state records; and if the plurality of friend state records have been successfully updated, then deleting the entry in the write-ahead log database wherein the operation comprises merging data from a friend state record associated with a handle with a friend state record associated with a known user and wherein the merging comprises: updating the friend state record associated with the known user to include the data from the friend state record associated with the handle.
I do not propose to discuss this claim in detail, but it will be pretty clear to everyone that it has nothing to do with identifying spammers or stalkers. Rather, it is directed to a method of ensuring that when a simultaneous update is required to multiple related records in a ‘friend service database’, the operation is performed in such a way that consistency is maintained within the database.
Compared with catching stalkers, of course this is all a bit dull. But then, most patented technologies are pretty boring for those people not directly involved!
ConclusionI could go on all day, but I will spare you all and stop there! The above examples were not cherry-picked for their inaccuracies, they are simply the four most recent PatentlyApple posts to have each conducted an allegedly detailed analysis of a published application or patent. Finding misleading information on PatentlyApple is not hard – the challenge is to find a post that gets it right!
Now, I do not much care what people want to write about, and I know that I have the free choice not to read anything I do not wish to. But with the patent system under increasing scrutiny, the important issue is not whether or not I read PatentlyApple.
When PatentlyApple publishes details of the patenting activities of Apple and other high-profile high-tech companies, other outlets report and reproduce this information as ‘news’. And in the comments sections across the web, people express their outrage at a ‘broken’ patent system which allows companies like Microsoft and Samsung (not to mention Apple) to obtain patents on ‘obvious’ ideas like pinch-zoom.
Just one problem – it’s not happening.
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