When you reach into your pocket and pull out your smartphone, pretty much everything you see is patented. The way that the icons are arranged, the way that the touchscreen reacts to swipes, even the shape of the damn thing is protected by U.S. intellectual property law. And there are many technology experts who believe strongly that this is not a good thing because patents aren’t just being used to protect original ideas any more. They’re being used as weapons by big technology companies to swat back at competitors who launch products they think are too similar to theirs. Based on the patents we’ve seen filed lately, they’re pretty silly weapons, too.
The latest Apple patent to catch tech bloggers’ eyes is as ridiculous as they get. It’s a patent on turning pages. That’s right. Apple’s latest innovation is something that human beings have been doing for centuries: turning pages in a book. Of course, it’s totally new and different when it happens on a screen. The company was just awarded a patent, “Display screen or portion thereof with animated graphical user interface,” on the skeuomorphic software design that covers the simulated page-turn in apps like iBooks. See above for an illustration of the technique.
To give Apple a little bit of credit, the page-turning patent actually covers how the page-turning mechanism appears. It’s unclear if this means that any company that also introduces a simulated page-turn will be subject to the wrath of Apple’s patent lawyers. If past precedent is any indication, though, the Cupertino kids are unlikely to pass up the chance to jab at a competitor with its patent litigation team.
In any case, whether patents are used as weapons or for licensing purposes, the amount of patents awarded for basic minutiae is climbing, which has produced calls to reform the system. “There’s a real chaos,” Richard A. Posner, the federal appellate judge who’s been handling most of the serious patent lawsuits, told The New York Times recently. “The standards for granting patents are too loose.”
Don’t believe him? Check out some of Apple’s latest patents.
Music Icon – This one’s pretty rich. About six weeks ago, Apple won a patent on the music icon. The claim is for the " ornamental design for a display screen or portion thereof with icon, as shown and described." The image shown is simply a couple of musical notes with a circle drawn around them. Patents are supposed to be reviewed for novelty and obviousness. It’s unclear what’s new or not obvious about this one.
Lists – Some tech bloggers called this one the “ultimate smartphone patent,” and it’s not hard to see why. Earlier this year, Apple won a big victory when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded it a patent for the interface used to display lists and documents on the iPhone. There’s nothing terribly special about the way the lists look. They look like lists. Tapping an item will show you that item. Moving your thumb up or down on the screen will scroll through the list. And Apple owns the entire experience. We haven’t seen Apple take Google, the maker of the Android mobile operating system, to task over how it displays lists yet, but it seems inevitable.
Pinch-to-zoom – If you’ve paid any attention to the frustratingly endless courtroom battle between Apple and Samsung, you’ll know a little bit about this Apple software innovation. Put simply, Apple owns the rights to the gesture that lets you zoom in on a touchscreen by pinching your fingers. However, this claim hasn’t held up very well in courts. The Netherlands is the latest country after the United Kingdom and the United States to say that Apple does not own the sole rights to pinching.
Slide-to-unlock – The original solution to preventing pocket calls on the iPhone is now not one, not two, but three Apple patents. It’s not just the horizontal swipe that you see on the iPhone that Apple wants full control over. It’s pretty much any swipe. According to the filings, Apple lays claim to “continuously moving the unlock image on the touch-sensitive display in accordance with the movement of the detected contact” as well as “movement of the unlock image from the first location to an unlock region.” In other words, if you have to touch the screen to unlock it, you should be paying Apple some royalties.
Maps – That’s right. Apple owns the way that maps are displayed on a smartphone. Awarded in 2008, Apple’s patent on “Touch screen device, method, and graphical user interface for providing maps, directions, and location-based information” applies to the original layout of the Google Maps-powered Apple Maps app. The standard search box above a displayed map with toggles at the bottom is all Apple’s, regardless of where the data’s coming from. It wouldn’t be impossible to come up with a different layout, but since Apple’s patent covers the gestures as well—everything from sliding a finger across the map to pan in one direction or the other to dropping a pin to mark a specific location—it’s going to be tricky. It’ll be particularly interesting to see what happens when Google relaunches its maps app for iOS, after Apple replaced it with its own maps technology.
Rectangles – There aren’t really a ton of sensible shapes that a company could make an smartphone. A square would be pretty awkward to hold. A circle would be hilarious. A pentagon, very strong. But if you want to build a smartphone that’s rectangular with rounded corners, you’d better ask Apple for its permission. The company patented the shape earlier this month. The Verge appropriately calls the original filing “a let’s-see-what-we-can-get patent.” They got it!
This is by no means an exhaustive list. In total, Apple has nearly 400 software design patents, but they’re not even close to the leaders in this arena. Samsung has over 2,000. We’re guessing you can’t even look at their products without getting sued.