Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Of Computers and Copyrights...

Okay, here's my latest rant. Most of you should be familiar with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. They're the government organization that says who owns a particular invention or device. Well, the USPTO has a bad habit of granting patents for absolutely ridiculous items. In particular, I'm talking about software patents. This article on Slashdot from last year, states that Microsoft was granted a patent on the double-click. That's right. The double-click. So, that means that any version of Apple's operating system, and most versions of Linux that use a graphical interface are infringing on Microsoft's patent. Wanna know the best part, though? If someone actually tried to challenge this (like Apple) the patent would most likely be overturned due to "prior use." Which basically means "other people were using it before you got your idiotic patent." Patents like this really make me wonder about the USPTO's criteria for granting patents.

Another issue I have with software patents can be illustrated by a lawsuit that was filed recently against Apple which alleges that their iTunes music player software infringes on a patent held by Contois Music Technology. Here's a link to the article at From the article: "[The alleged infringements] include iTunes' menu selection process to allow the user to select music to be played, the ability of the software to transfer music tracks to a portable music player, and search capabilities such as sorting music tracks by their genre, artist and album attributes." If I'm not mistaken I think that could be a description for pretty much every music player in use today. You can do all of this in Windows Media Player, and Musicmatch Jukebox which are two other widely used music players. In my opinion the whole reason that this company is suiing Apple is because Apple is the biggest fish in the digital music pond right now. If they sued Microsoft there is very little in damages that could be collected because Windows Media Player is not a direct source of income for Microsoft. iTunes, however, has provided a direct revenue stream for Apple since the inception of the iTunes Music Store. Also, isn't it interesting that iTunes has actually been around for quite a while, yet only now when it is providing revenue for the company that makes it, is Contois Music Technology seeking damages and an injunction. Why didn't they seek the injunction when the program first came into existence? It's been around for at least five years, and Contois is claiming that some Apple engineers looked at their product ten years ago at a trade show. One of the problems with patents like this is that they are so incredibly broad, that you can claim that just about everything infringes on your patent. I could get a patent on placing food items between two pieces of bread, and suddenly come out and sue any restaurant that makes sandwiches and hamburgers for infringing on my sandwich patent.

So, to summarize, I'm not against patents, I'm against overly broad patents. Especially when they deal with interfaces for computer programs. You could get a patent for "device for providing visual feedback to a computer user" and suddenly you could sue anyone who makes computer monitors and LCD projectors - of course your lawsuit would get shot down due to "prior use" but that's beside the point. This is simply idiotic. The USPTO needs to reexamine its criteria for determining if a patent should be granted before this kind of lunacy gets out of hand.