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"By putting your hands on the table and spreading them, you zoom into a region, a city, a neighborhood." That was my description, in a 2005 Newsweek story, of a Danny Hillis interactive table top map.   If it sounds like the gesture-based technology in the iPhone -- technology that Apple patented and then sued Samsung and others for implementing -- that's because the Apple gestures weren't exactly original.  That's the belated judgment of the USTPO, after finally figuring out that the Hillis patent on his gestures, and others predating Apple's work, proved that its "discoveries" weren't really novel at all, and by implication the patent office itself failed to recognize this. Two other patents were cited in striking down other interface claims.

Hillis's work wasn't exactly a secret, as my Newsweek article showed.  

Don't get me wrong, Apple did fantastic work on the iPhone interface.  But then it claimed a broad ownership  of the very concept of such gestures.  And convinced the patent office to give it a monopoly on such technology.  

We've got to fix this.
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19 comments
 
Thing is, a painter who creates a masterpiece portrait has created the masterpiece. He has not created the paint and canvas.
 
Nice. About time we saw some sensible decisions being made with regard to the patent laws. Good to point out that the USPTO dropped the ball pretty badly as well.
 
There are so many ideas that get patented again.

Absurd allowance slipping past the examination of those patent filings and now does Danny Hillis get a royalty from Apple?
 
+Alvin Brinson but the painter can't patent 'using a paint brush to apply the paint' and then take everyone to court for using the paint brush. And as for a masterpiece, I don't think so. 
 
Yes, we need to fix it, but HOW?
 
+Steven Levy I can't tell from what you said or did not say: Did Hillis et al have patents on this, or just prior art?
 
Is Hillis going to sue Apple for patent infringement???????
 
Amazingly, Apple Maps has taken us back to 2005...
 
+Kevin Kelly have a read of the linked pdf. There are 5 other patents in total indicating prior art, one of which belongs to Hillis.
 
If the USPTO screws up, does an examiner get fined or fired? There is zero accountability, they can rubber stamp applications and force extraordinarily expensive court review of their shoddy work, say 'oops' if forced to and then proceed on exactly like before.
 
Kevin, Danny (along with his Applied Minds partner Bran Ferren) got a patent.  They applied in 2005, kind of late since I saw it already working then.   The work of Jeff Han of NYU also used gestures in the same way Apple did, though it's hard to tell if anyone at Apple was doing it first.  The point is -- as Kevin shows quite dramatically in his book What Technology Wants -- some of these "discoveries" are inevitable and, yes, obvious when platforms reach a certain point.  It's absurd to say whoever woos an overloaded patent examiner gets a 20 year monopoly on a chokepoint.

http://www.google.com/patents/US7724242
 
+Lucas Walter. “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” ~George Burns

The staff at USPTO are working under an avalanche of patent requests, and that needs to change.

 
Question: Did the Hillis work pre-date the Pentagon's map room table, too?
 
+Douglas Rehfeldt Which is why fees (both application and maintenance) need to rise dramatically to disincentivize frivolous or unused patents and to cover the cost of additional staff and the cost to society of bad patents.
 
+Lucas Walter I don't see how increased fees would help. Would that really deter the likes of Apple with who knows how many billion in the bank? If anything it just skews the balance of power further towards rich corporates. Frivolous patents shouldn't be granted in the first place and software patents likely need to be thrown away completely.
 
+Lucas Walter I don't believe that putting more blame on the examiners achieves anything.  The amount of time they are expected to spend on an application is too low, among other problems.  Things need to change in the process - different methods of prior art search, different metrics to categorize similarities and differences between claims, different methods of tagging and indexing existing patents.  Changes to make the system more deterministic.
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