Can I Patent the Patent Process?

My recent acquisition of an iPod has lead me to a little thinking in terms of interfaces. I understood that nobody else could use the circular interface found on the iPod because Apple had a patent on it. I thought this was a little silly, and wanted to see the contents of the patent with my own two eyes. The US Patent Office offers a public search of all granted and pending patents through it website (found here).

I found an interesting article that took a look at some of Apple’s current patents, and my mouth fell a little agape. Apple’s patenting practises right now make me think that the patent process is simply broken. They have attempted to patent some amazingly simply things in an effort to (apparently) protect their intellectual property and innovation. As the article points out, they were smart enough to patent the trash icon you find on their desktop. Notices that Windows does not have a trash icon, but rather a recycling bin?

But things get a little sillier.

They’re tried to patent the progress bar, for example. Yes, the progress bar we all see on our screens everyday. The date of that patent application is 2000, and the patent includes some helpful diagrams to aid in understanding the difficult concepts involved. Note that the date of the patent grant is over 2 years later, and this is actually a large part of the problem (see below for more on this).

That USPO site is actually pretty cool, as you can grab a glimpse of some of the things Apple is working on. For instance, there’s a patent pending approval of a mouse with a rotary dial – looking strangely like a mouse with the iPod’s rotary dial on top instead of a normal wheel. Now, why Apple is patenting things like this I don’t know – the mouse they make and sell currently only has 1 button, not two or three, and it certainly doesn’t have a wheel yet. My guess is they are trying to cover their bases again by ensuring that the interface for the iPod (patented on the media player only) is not re-used on other hardware devices in the future.

For those interested, the iPod patent can be found here, though it consists mostly of images of the hardware. Apple has also decided that the menu navigation system is so revolutionary it deserves its own patent as well. Note that to view the images associated with patents, the USPO requires a plugin installed in your browser. They have instructions here. I am using the TIFF plugin Alternatiff as suggested by the USPO’s plugin page.

In order to protect something Apple thinks might be useful, they just patent it offhand, and wait for a few years to see if their guess was accurate. This shotgun approach to patenting isn’t helping anyone, and Apple is not the only guilty party. The USPO is two years behind in processing the applications. The amount of work this approach is generating is enormous and, in my opinion, frivolous. During those years that a patent application is undergoing approval, innovation is killed.

Wow – patents are the death of creativity. What does this say about copyrights?

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