Thursday, January 08, 2009

iPhone infringes patent

Not to belabour the case against software patents, but as a newly converted follower of the Cult of Mac I found this one quite interesting. Apple has been sued by small web developer EMG Technology for infringement of its patent protecting an "apparatus and method of manipulating a region on a wireless device screen for viewing, zooming and scrolling internet content" (US Patent 7,441,196). No prizes will be awarded for guessing where the suit was filed.

The abstract reads:

"A method and apparatus of simplified navigation. A web page is provided having a link to a sister site. The sister site facilitates simplified navigation. Pages from the sister site are served responsive to actuation of the sister site link. In one embodiment, the sister site includes matrix pages to permit matrix navigation."
Let me see, so this patent covers any sort of navigation simplified for mobile devices, and was filed in March 2000. I guess the examiners missed that the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) was first established in 1997. Or perhaps they also missed that in that same year Openwave had a functional HDML browser for AT&T handsets. Or they also missed that Microsoft has had its Microsoft Mobile Explorer since 1999, from technology developed also in 1997.

Let me get my patent troll detection kit:
  • Exceptionally broad and obvious claim (check).
  • Small company, (check)
  • with suspiciously empty website (check).
  • Patent application filed around 1999-2000 (check).
  • Plenty of prior art (check)
Seriously, who examines these applications anyway? Don't they have Google?


David said...

In case you weren't aware, the abstract of a patent does not define its scope. This is the job of the claims. Have you even read them? Claim 1 reads:

"A method of navigating the Internet, comprising: displaying on-line content accessed via the Internet, the on-line content reformatted from a webpage in a hypertext markup language (HTML) format into an extensible markup language (XML) format to generate a sister site, the sister site including a portion or a whole of content of the web page reformatted to be displayed and navigable through a simplified navigation interface on any one of a television, web appliance, console device, handheld device, wireless device or cellular phone, the simplified navigation interface displayed in a form of a two-dimensional layer of cells from a plurality of layers and a plurality of cells, the two-dimensional layer in a form of a navigation matrix, each cell is a division of a screen and exclusive to a separate single navigation option associated with a specific unique input, the on-line content formatted to be displayed in one or more of the plurality of cells and formatted to be selected for navigation by one or more of the unique inputs, navigation options to change between layers of the simplified navigation interface from general to more specific in each deeper layer; receiving a user selection of one of the navigation options; forwarding the selected navigation option across the internet to a server providing the simplified navigation interface; receiving a next deeper navigation layer of the simplified navigation interface corresponding to the selected navigation option; and manipulating a region of the screen for viewing and zooming and/or scrolling of the displayed on-line content. "

That doesn't sound exceptionally broad and obvious to me.

Andres Guadamuz said...

Hi David,

Thanks, I am indeed aware that the claim is not in the abstract, I tend to reproduce the abstracts here because usually it contains less gibberish and technospeak than the claims. I know that many patent attorneys love to hide obvious technology in a barrage of technical terms. This particular claim is indeed broad if you understand the technology.

When you get rid the meaningless jargon contained in the claim you have reproduced, what this says pretty much is the following: The "invention" is a website coded in two levels, one is the normal display, and the other is a simplified version for mobile viewing. XML code contained in the page will flag up the choice for the viewer so he/she can view the simplified one or not.

That is indeed broad and obvious, and as I have said, there were plenty of people doing this before March 2000. Heck, I was programming pages with two layers back in 1998! I remember programming pages with different resolutions, or which displayed differently if one was browsing with Internet Explorer or Netscape.

There are plenty of proper innovations in the software field that deserve a patent, but this is not one of them.

David said...

Thanks for the clarification. From what you say, it should be a straightforward job for you to point to a document that shows each and every feature of the claim, or at least a document from which the claim would be an obvious development. Saying "I remember..." is not usually good enough in court.

Andres Guadamuz said...

David, I am a bit baffled by the antagonism. I am not basing my analysis on an anecdote, but based on an understanding of the technical claim. My experience coding websites helps to elucidate the obviousness of this claim.

I have already specified at least three companies that had developed technology identical to that contained in this claim. But I will be happy to oblige.

Technical specifications for the WAP standard (released in 1998): (requires login to access the PDF files).

Press release for Microsoft Mobile Explorer (1999):

Peer reviewed article describing mobile browsing via layers (1999):

Article describing dynamic transcoding for mobile borwsing (1998):

Article proposing a layered approach to mobile browising (1996):

Tell you what. I can go through the entire list of claims (more than 70 I think). I bet that I can dissect this claim and find prior art for every single one.

David said...

No antagonism intended. I just wanted to make sure you had actually read the claims. It looks like you have. I would, however, be careful about making sweeping claims about the invalidity of the patent before you have analysed all the claimed features. It looks to me like the "two-dimensional layer of cells" is quite important for this one. Bear in mind that in the US (at least until recently), features that might be regarded as 'non-technical' over here in Europe (which you might consider to be meaningless jargon) may well be key to the invention. I haven't looked at the US prosecution history, so can't be sure, but I suspect there will be a little key difference somewhere in the claim that got it allowed.

Andres Guadamuz said...

You have more faith in the USPTO than me. I have been reading software patent claims for quite a while, and this is a perfect example of what I have come to expect from the most obvious cases filed around 2000 (just before the end of the bubble). There is a large batch of these obvious applications done were, to put it bluntly, filed

One of the most frustrating characteristics of software patents for those technically inclined is precisely the manner in which straightforward computing and programming concepts are hidden behind gibberish and obscure language.

I agree that the patent's "two-dimensional layer of cells" is very important part of the claim, but that is precisely what angers me so much about this patent. This is a blatant attempt to obscure a clear technical meaning by the use of gibberish. What it means is that there are two layers of code in a page, one that has instructions for normal browsing and one that has instructions for mobile browsing.

As I have stated, the basic embodiment of the claim was being developed, written about, and talked about as early as 4 years before the filing. This is unacceptable, it punishes the true innovators and benefits firms and individuals that have done nothing other than put together a plausible-sounding claim hoping that it gets past over-worked, under-paid and under-experienced examiners.