Bad news on patent protection of the obvious

…A federal agency ruled on Monday that a set of important features commonly found in smartphones are protected by an Apple patent, a decision that could force changes in how Google’s Android phones function….

…For example, the case decided Monday involves the technology that lets you tap your finger once on the touch screen to call a phone number that is written inside an e-mail or text message. It also involves the technology that allows you to schedule a calendar appointment, again with a single tap of the finger, for a date mentioned in an e-mail.

“Clicking” (tapping) on a phone number is a novel idea protected by an apple patent?

…Apple applied for one of the patents at issue in the HTC case — for detecting phone numbers and other forms of data — in 1996, 11 years before the iPhone was released….

I wonder if Skype is currently paying Apple royalties for use of essentially the same idea in their browser plugin, or if the patent is somehow unique to mobile, or to “tap” instead of “click”.

The routine granting of patents for techniques that would be obvious to any software engineer confronted with a particular context of technological ‘affordances’ is deeply harmful to software innovation, competition, and freedom.

One thought on “Bad news on patent protection of the obvious

  1. “obvious to any software engineer” – that’s the hard part. I’m assuming somebody technical at the patent office is trying to make those determinations during the application process, but ultimately it’s getting decided in court, where technical facts are not the only factor.

    It seems like part of the problem is just the timeframe involved. In 1996, maybe this could have been considered non-obvious – I don’t think so, but I think if anyone had bothered to fight this patent then, there could have been an argument made. But at some point that patent has to expire. If patents usually last 20 years (according to an FAQ on the USPTO website), that’s just way too long. The example of tapping the phone number shows this: patented in 1996 when there was no way to do such a thing (at least in terms of a marketable product), still in force when the iPhone was a revolutionary new thing in 2007, being enforced now in this ridiculous court case, and still enforced (presumably) as late as 2016.

    It seems like a 20 year patent now is really just a way for someone established in a market today to ensure that innovations that come later start at a disadvantage. The timeframe needs to be a lot shorter, given that the lifecycle of technology has accelerated so much.

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