THE JOKE that is the US patent system is being used to have another pop at Apple.
The lawsuit was filed by Austin, Texas inventor Eric Gould Bear, president and CEO of interface design firm Monkeymedia. Basically Bear thinks that Apple nicked his idea for a "Seamless Contraction", which appears to be a set of techniques to narrow the display of information to what the user wants.
The three patents involved are 6,177,938, 6,219,052 and 6,335,730. Each is a subtle variant of a set of five patents - add 5,623,588 and 6,215,491 to complete the set.
Each of the five is titled "Computer User Interface with Non-Salience Deemphasis". They look to us like the idea of highlighting text.
Bear claims that Apple nicked his ideas in Mac OS X's Summary Service, which summarise text blocks, with a slider, Apple's Safari web browser, which offers something similar in its RSS reader, and in the combination of Mac OS X's Front Row and DVD Player apps, which the lawsuit claims infringe upon patent 6,335,730's essentially identical description of less-important objects being shrunken and more important objects being emphasised.
In a statement announcing the lawsuit, Bear said that synergy between inventors and manufacturers is healthy and, "[W]e love that Apple believes in our technology. We simply prefer open communications and fair compensation."
Bear's comments appear to be cut and pasted from Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who said, "We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We've decided to do something about it... We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."
The lawsuit shows the weaknesses of the US patent system, in that it is approving broad patents without engaging much brain and then forcing huge court fights between companies for years.
Most big companies have catalogues of patents that they can use defensively or offensively against competition. Smaller outfits often hope to make a fast buck from bigger firms by threatening to take them to court.
However the technology and the ideas are rarely what's at stake. No one can claim that Steve Jobs got up one morning and said, "Computer User Interface with Non-Salience Deemphasis" is a good idea, I think I'm going to nick it."
However it is very hard to be sympathetic to Jobs' Mob when it carries out similar actions to sink competition. After all, the court case against HTC over the Android OS is more about the fact that Apple is losing ground in the smartphone market to Android. HTC has also replied to the claim in kind.
The US patent system is a rusty machine that is fast falling to bits. As it is, only lawyers are getting any benefit from it. Real innovation, often by individuals and small companies, is being squashed as large firms defend their turf from ideas that they never had themselves. It needs serious reform, or at least a thorough shake-up, but we guess we will never see that while the lawyers make so much money from it. µ