Apple, Inc. (AAPL) is at the center of nearly two-thirds of patent suits in the mobile industry. The company has been targeted by trolls due to its profitability, but it has also used its large portfolio of questionable software patents to try to preserve that profitability, playing aggressor and stifling would be competitors.
I. USPTO: Feeding the Trolls
This week inspectors at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) granted Apple two new patents that push the bounds of reason and represent, once again, the vast disconnect between the nation’s intellectual property office and any sort of technical competence.
The first patent covers making an on-screen graphical element, disappear, more or less. Brand new U.S. Patent No. 8,223,134 claims invention of using “a predetermined condition” to determine when “display of a vertical bar is ceased”.
Apple has patented making a scrolling icon disappear. [Image Source: The Verge]
Even in a narrow context, it is somewhat baffling how making a graphic disappear when some program conditions are met is patentable.
Apple had already patented making a scrolling list accelerate or slow down. That technology is described by U.S. Patent No. 7,479,949, which was filed in April 2008 and granted in Jan. 2009.
It has been noted [PDF] by intellectual property expert Judge Richard A. Posner that the claim construction in Apple’s past scrolling patents is quite broad. Some have misinterpreted this as an assertion that the patent was valid. In fact, Judge Posner feels that most software patents are invalid — he was simply noting that Apple lawyers are right — the patents being granted by the USPTO are purposefully worded to be alarmingly broad.
Yet another example of Apple’s bizarrely broad patents and the USPTO’s baffling insistence on approving them comes from U.S. Patent No. 8,223,134 — also granted this week.
Patent ‘134 describes the invention of “displaying electronic lists and documents”. Granted, Apple presents this “invention” in a mobile context, and throws in multi-touch. But essentially it has patented in rather broad and ambiguous language displaying a list on a smartphone.
Not only is this “invention” not an invention at all due to obviousness, it’s more than likely invalid due to prior art.
II. Lax Reviews Waste Taxpayer Money and Hurt Competition
The USPTO’s willingness to embrace Apple’s legal trolling creates two crucial problems for the U.S.
First, taxpayers must see their money wasted on paying Judges and juries to deal with Apple’s slew of lawsuits and subsequent appeals against its competitors. Second, if Apple can find just one sympathetic court, it can use its patent horde to ban its competitors from the market, in an attempt to grant itself a government-enforced monopoly.
Apple successfully banned the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 using similar patents.
[Images Source: 9to5Google]
This was showcased in Apple’s case against Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KSC:005930) in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (San Jose/San Francisco). In one of its court motions Apple sought to ban the Galaxy Tab 10.1 on the grounds that it infringed on its patented design. Judge Lucy Koh rejected this notion, saying Apple’s design patent — U.S. Design Patent D504,889 — was likely invalid due to prior art (and the fact that it looked neither like an iPad nor a Galaxy Tab 10.1). But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit heard Apple’s appeal of that ruling and decided the design patent was valid. The end result was a ban on the competitor’s tablet.
Likewise, in another case Judge Koh agreed to tentatively ban the smartphone on the grounds of several software patents similar to be above-granted ones.
While those patents may eventually be invalidated, it cannot be denied that Apple has gained a key anti-competitive advantage by gaming the system.
III. iPad Prototype Images Surface
Speaking of the Galaxy Tab case, remember these images, appearing in the design patent:
Apple’s D’889 patent [Image Source: Google Patents]
Well the photographic model of those sketches has aired, courtesy of documents found in Apple’s legal filings. The documents offer the world’s first glimpse at the 2004-era iPad.
[Image Source: Network World]
The prototype looks just like the design patent’s drawings — and not much like the iPad. The bezel size is different, the case is bulky, and there are no buttons.
Again, here we see how Apple has managed to get a single court to buy into its theory that it should be granted a broad monopoly by a single highly questionable, and, at the very least, very narrow patent.
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