OMG! Apple is trying to patent someone's app! [ no they're not ]

A tumblr posting just popped up on my radar about Apple trying to patent an app that is identical to one by the company Where-To [Original Posting Here]

The author shows a image comparing a line drawing in Apple’s patent to a screenshot of an application called “Where-To”. The images are indeed strikingly similar.

The author then opens:
>> It’s pretty easy to argue that software patents are bad for the software industry.

Well yes, it is pretty easy to argue that. It’s also pretty easy to argue that Software Patents are really good for the software industry. See, you can cherry-pick edge cases for both arguments and prove either point. You can make an easy argument out of anything, because it’s easier to do that and argue on black&white philosophical beliefs than it is to think about complex systems.

That’s a huge problem with bloggers though– they don’t like to think. They just like to react.

The author continues:

>Regardless of where you stand on that issue, however, it must at least give you pause when Apple, who not only exercises final approval over what may be sold on the world’s largest mobile software distribution platform, but also has exclusive pre-publication access (by way of that approval process) to every app sold or attempted to be sold there, quietly starts patenting app ideas.

> But even if you’re fine with that, how about this: one of the diagrams in Apple’s patent application for a travel app is a direct copy, down to the text and the positions of the icons, of an existing third-party app that’s been available on the App Store for years.

Believe it or not this happens ALL THE TIME. It’s not uncommon to see major technology companies have images from their biggest competitors in their patent diagrams. Patent diagrams are meant to illustrate concepts, and if someone does something very clear — then you copy it. So you might see a Yahoo patent application that shows advertising areas that read “Ads by Google” ( check out the “interestingness” application Flickr filed a few years ago ), or you might have an Apple patent application that shows one very-well-done user interface by another company being used as an example to convey an idea. This isn’t “stealing” ( though I wonder how someone can argue both against and for intellectual property in the same breath ) – it’s just conveying a concept. Conveying a concept or an interface in a patent doesn’t mean that you’re patenting it, it just means you’re using it to explain a larger concept.

The blogger failed to mention a few really key facts:

1. This was 1 image out of 10 images.
2. Other screenshots included a sodoku game, an instant message, a remote control for an airline seat’s console, a barcoded boarding pass, and a bunch of other random things.
3. The Patent Application is titled “Systems And Methods For Accessing Travel Services Using A Portable Electronic Device” — it teaches about integrating travel services through a mobile device. Stuff like automating checking, boarding , inflight services and ground options for when you land. The Where-To app shows interesting things based on geo-location.

You don’t need to read the legalese claims to understand the two apps are entirely unrelated — you could just read the title, the abstract, or the laymans description. If someone did that, they might learn this was shown as an interface to navigate airport services:

> In some embodiments, a user can view available airport services through the integrated application. As used herein, the term “airport services” can refer to any airport amenities and services such as shops, restaurants, ATM’s, lounges, shoe-shiners, information desks, and any other suitable airport services. Accordingly, through the integrated application, airport services can be searched for, browsed, viewed, and otherwise listed or presented to the user. For example, an interface such as interface 602 can be provided on a user’s electronic device. Through interface 602, a user can search for and view information on the various airport services available in the airport.

Apple’s patent has *nothing* to do with the design or functionality of the Where-To app. They’re not trying to patent someone else’s invention, nor are they trying to patent a variation of the invention or any portion of the app. They just made a wireframe of a user interface that they liked (actually, it was probably their lawyer or draftsman) to illustrate an example screen.

Either 2 things happened:

1. The blogger didn’t bother reading the patent, and just rushed to make conclusions of his own.
2. The blogger read the patent, but didn’t care — because there was something in there that could be controversial.

Whichever reason doesn’t matter — both illustrates my underlying point that 99% of people who are talking about software patents should STFU because they’re unable or unwilling to address complex concepts. Whenever patent issues come up, the outspoken masses have knee-jerk reactions based on ideology (on all sides of the issue), and fail to actually read or investigate an issue.

There was even a comment where someone noted:

> Filing date is December 2009….which means Apple’s priority date is December 2008. From what I can see, this app went on sale in mid 2009….going to be hard to argue it is prior art.

They didn’t bother reading the application either. On the *very first line* , we see:

> [0001]This application claims the benefit of U.S. Provisional Patent Application No. 61/147,644, filed on Jan. 27, 2009, which is hereby incorporated by reference herein in its entirety.

How the commenter decided that *December 2008* was a priority date bewilders me. The actual priority date is written in that very first line! They also brought up the concept of ‘Priority’ – which is interesting because that suggests they understand how the USPTO works a bit. “Priority” lets an applicant use an earlier date as their official filing date under certain conditions — either a provisional application is turned into a non-provisional application, or a non-provisional application is split into multiple applications. In both of these cases no new material can be submitted to the USPTO after the ‘priority date’ – It’s just a convenient way to let inventors file information about their invention quickly, and have a little more time to get the legal format in full compliance. A provisional application does have 1 year to be turned into a a non-provisional application — but there’s no backwards clock to claim priority based on your filing date.

I’ve been growing extremely unsatisfied with Apple over the past few years, and I’d love to see them get ‘checked’ by the masses over an issue. Unfortunately, there is simply no issue here.

*Update: The brilliant folks at TechCrunch have just stoked the fire on this matter too, citing the original posting and then improperly jumping to their own conclusions. They must be really desperate for traffic today. Full Article Here*