Russel Winder's Website

Patently Ludicrous

A lot of focus in the software community over the last few years and (sadly) for a few more to come is on software patents - and quite right too, they are an important tool for big corporates to stifle innovation and competition. One case that is causing some angst recently is variously known as "Paul Allen vs. The World", "Paul Allen vs. The Internet", and "Paul Allen vs. All". In fact it is a suit against 11 companies: AOL, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, Yahoo, and YouTube. A seriously motley crew. This case has the potential to bring the whole patent troll approach to business in the software arena to an end. Why? Well the lawyers (and I am not one) seem to be indicating there are serious faults in bringing a single case against so many independent and disconnected defendants. Also the claims in the suit are extremely non-specific, as are the patents themselves. From the press release issued by Interval Licensing LLC itself:

_ The patents Interval is asserting include:

  1. United States Patent No. 6,263,507 issued for an invention entitled "Browser for Use in Navigating a Body of Information, With Particular Application to Browsing Information Represented By Audiovisual Data."
  2. United States Patent No. 6,034,652 issued for an invention entitled "Attention Manager for Occupying the Peripheral Attention of a Person in the Vicinity of a Display Device."
  3. United States Patent No. 6,788,314 issued for an invention entitled "Attention Manager for Occupying the Peripheral Attention of a Person in the Vicinity of a Display Device."
  4. United States Patent No. 6,757,682 issued for an invention entitled "Alerting Users to Items of Current Interest." _

The perception given by this list is definitely that they are claiming patent on Web browsers, Web browsing, advertising on screen, and pop-ups. Obviously, there must be a bit more detail. Fortunately, the patent documentation is stored by Google Patents.

From cursory examination, 6,263,507 (filed 1999-06-25, granted 2005-04-12) appears to be about screen design for news reading "mash-ups". There seems to be no mention of task modelling, user modelling or any HCI approaches that have been standard for 30+years, but then this is a US patent and so nothing to do with usability, it's about profit.

Bizarrely 6,034,652 (filed 1996-03-22, granted 2000-03-07) and 6,788,314 (filed 2000-03-20, granted 2004-09-07) seem actually to be the same. The abstracts are suspiciously the same - except that people have been replaced by users. Even in my role as "not a lawyer", it strikes me that USPTO have granted the latter without even looking at the former, and are therefore acting improperly - look at the filing and granting dates. Nonetheless these vacuous patents are on the books. They are again seemingly about newsreader "mash-ups", but the content of the text indicates something obvious and not really an invention.

I bet you already guessed that 6,757,682 (filed 2000-09-07, granted 2004-06-29) is about newsreader "mash-ups". This time they explicitly introduce the existence of "The Cloud" in their diagrams. Interestingly one of their diagrams looks very like the one in 7,028,023 (filed 2002-09-26, granted 2006-04-11) Linked List. I wonder if they will be paying royalties or are cross-licencing? 6,757,682 actually has some maths in it, so they have some model for processing, but isn't mathematics explicitly not patentable?

It is interesting to note that there is a suspicious linearity to the granting and filing of these patents. It would be interesting to know who the "inventors" were working for when creating these documents - which to be honest bear all the hallmarks of documents designed to undertake patent trolling. The approaches are obvious, couched in terms the USPTO can issue a patent against.

Clearly the lawyers see a gravy train and a gold mine hear and are milking it. Where does that leave UI designers? Well if these sort of patents are upheld as legal, then they are well screwed.

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