Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Paul Allen's patent attack, part 2

In a followup to Paul Allen's patent attack, Groklaw writes:
According to a status report filed with the court by Yahoo! (see full text below), the reexamination requests with respect to three of the four patents have been granted, and we should expect to hear about the fourth any day now.

Two of the reexamination requests (those for patents 6263507 and 6034652) were filed as ex parte requests. That means the requesting party has submitted what they believe to be relevant prior art, but it is entirely up to the examiner to assess the relevance of that prior art and apply it with no further input from the requesting party. In the other two cases (patents 6788314 and 6757682) the requests are for inter partes reexaminations, meaning the requesting party is an on-going participant to the reexamination process. Why were two of the requests made ex parte and the other two inter partes? For patents issued with filing dates before November 11, 1999, a requesting party may only request ex parte examination.
Here's a reminder on the patents:
  • 6,263,507: "Browser for use in navigating a body of information, with particular application to browsing information represented by audio data."
  • 6,034,652 and 6,788,314: "Attention manager for occupying the peripheral attention of a person in the vicinity of a display device"
  • 6,757,682: "Alerting users to items of current interest"

Friday, May 27, 2011

Facebook and sharing personal info

Facebook has applied for another broad patent: "Controlling Access of User Information Using Social-Networking Information". Fortunately, this is still just an application for a patent.

More information from BNet:
The concept is to use degrees of separation between people to control whether one social network user can retrieve information about a second. If there is a close enough relationship between them (in Facebook terms, think of the difference between friends and friends of friends), then the first user gets the information. Too great a degree of separation, and the request is denied.
[...]
This might seem a ridiculous patent. After all, what social network doesn’t in some form allow users to obtain information about each other based on the relationship between them?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The "editable toolbar" patent

Patent 7,363,592 describes editable toolbars in software. In brief, that's the ability to add, remove, or rearrange buttons on a toolbar - like the "bold" or "italic" buttons in a word processing program. But according to an article in TechDirt, this patent on the "editable toolbar" was ruled invalid:
The court goes through a discussion on the obviousness of editable toolbars... which should drive any real programmer nuts. The fact that lawyers and a court had to waste all this time debating the patentability of editable toolbars is just crazy. The key point, however, is that there was a previous patent that more or less beat Odom to the punch on pretty much everything in his patent. That's extremely embarrassing for Odom, since his entire job is supposedly his ability to find prior art for people.
In short, the court found that an "editable toolbar" was not patentable.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Concerns about software patents

I'd like to share this link from ZDNet UK: "Concerns about software patents". It raises several good points on "software" patents. From the article:
While patents themselves are a good thing, applying them to software can actually have an adverse effect. Patents protect physical devices from being cloned, but when dealing with software that is based on mathematical algorithms, software patents prohibit companies from competing with similar software products. And depending on how broad the patent is, it can affect multiple products that are based on the same mathematical algorithm or user interface.
[...]
Microsoft has taken this one step further, and has started using software patents to threaten competitors into paying royalties.
The patent system should not be used as a "club" to threaten competition. This ties up our courts, and wastes resources that might be better spent on innovation, rather than "software" patent fights. But I hope through activism, we can change how "software" patents are treated.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Apple responds to "buy now" patent

Following up on last week's item about the in-app "Buy Now" patent - for example, when you want to purchase additional content from within an app. In that case, Lodsys sent notices to certain iPhone developers, claiming they were infringing on their patent.

Apple responded to Lodsys, and to the developers, saying it has the licensed the rights to in-app purchase, and that that license extends to developers on the iOS platform.

Details, including a copy of Apple's letter, are at CNet.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The patent on secure networks

Let's say you are an application developer, and you'd like to communicate with your server to complete some action. Maybe it's an app on a mobile phone, helping the user to buy a book online. Today, we do that using a web browser and the "HTTPS" protocol, which encrypts all traffic to a web server.

But how to do this through an "app", and know that the other end is secure? An easy way to do that might be to reference a different server name.

And now, there's a patent on that.

Patent 7,945,654 describes this behavior, with the added twist of non-standard "top-level domain names":
A secure domain name service for a computer network is disclosed that includes a portal connected to a computer network, such as the Internet, and a domain name database connected to the computer network through the portal. The portal authenticates a query for a secure computer network address, and the domain name database stores secure computer network addresses for the computer network. Each secure computer network address is based on a non-standard top-level domain name, such as .scom, .sorg, .snet, .snet, .sedu, .smil and .sint.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Buying "software" patents

Last year, Facebook bought the entire portfolio of social networking patents from rival Friendster. More details from this article in GigaOM:
The Friendster patents, which date back to the early days of social networking, are incredibly broad. They cover things like making connections on a social network, friend-of-a-friend connections through a social graph, and social media sharing.
[...]
It’s unlikely that Facebook would use the patents against other companies in the space rather than trying to out-compete them, though it now has the option to wield intellectual property as a weapon.
Think about that last statement for a moment: "wield intellectual property as a weapon." That's not what the patent system was originally set up to do, and that's partially why I'm trying to bring about reform of the patent system, especially for "software" patents.

If you haven't already, please contact your senator's office, and voice your concern over "software" patents.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Kodak and Apple

How many things can your computer do at once? Right now, you probably have a web browser running, and maybe an email program. Behind the scenes, your computer may be running an antivirus program, and other "services" that keep your system running smooth. And it does this all at the same time.

Now a different question: how many things can your phone do at the same time? Can it do more than task simultaneously? As portable devices become more powerful, the obvious thing to do is to take advantage of that capability.

Unless it involves a software method. Then it's patentable.

An article in NewsFactor Business Report describes a legal battle between two large companies: Kodak and Apple. At issue:
Kodak, the 131-year-old camera company based in Rochester, New York, has amassed more than 1,000 digital-imaging patents, and almost all of today's digital cameras rely on that technology. Mining its rich array of inventions has become an indispensable tool in its long and painful digital turnaround.

After failed negotiations, Kodak filed a complaint with the commission in January 2010 against Apple and the BlackBerry maker RIM. It also filed two lawsuits against Apple in federal court in Rochester, but it has not specified the damages it is seeking.

Three months later, Apple claimed that some Kodak camera and video camera lines violate two of its patents. One invention relates to a camera's ability to process several images at the same time; the other enables a camera to simultaneously handle adjustments in color, sharpness and other processes.
(Emphasis mine)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Who is that in the photo?

Have you ever looked through your family's photo album? You might find pictures of yourself as a child, your first birthday, your first loose tooth, your first time in a school play. You'll also find photos of relatives: aunts, uncles, great-grandparents, second cousins twice removed.

Flip those photos over, and I'll bet you'll find that someone wrote down who was in the photo.

In digital media, there's a similar way to identify people in photos. It's usually called a "tag" and this concept has been around for a long time. Pretty obvious, right? But applied to "social networking" (such as Facebook) this is now patented.

Patent 7,945,653 describes simply "Tagging digital media".

More from this article on BNet:
Patent number 7,945,653 is titled Tagging digital media. If you added “with someone’s identity,” this would be one of the rare cases where the title would reasonably describe what the patent covers.
[...]
Breaking it down, the claim involves the following:
  • There is a database of unspecified digital media.
  • Someone on a device (computer, smartphone, tablet, or what have you) brings up a file and associates it with the identity of a second person.
  • The second person gets a notification and can reject the identification.
So basically, this is "tagging" someone in a photo - with the added "social" action of notifying the other person that they were "tagged".

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The "buy now" button, part 2

Similar to Amazon's patent on the "buy now" button - also known as the "One Click" patent - is a patent on in-app purchases. You know those apps for your smartphone, where you download a "demo" (usually with limited functionality) and later choose to purchase the full version of the app? There's a patent on that idea.

And they are suing developers who have included this feature in their iPhone apps.

Patent 7,222,078 describes a method that seems too abstract to summarize adequately. Here's the abstract:
Methods and systems for gathering information from units of a commodity across a network

Abstract
In an exemplary system, information is received at a central location from different units of a commodity. The information is generated from two-way local interactions between users of the different units of the commodity and a user interface in the different units of the commodity. The interactions elicit from respective users their perceptions of the commodity.
Seems pretty vague to me. The salient point for iPhone developers seems to be around Claim 24:
24. The system of claim 1 wherein the two-way local interactions comprise a transaction for sale of a product or a service contract for the commodity.
As far as I can tell, that's what Lodsys is using as they sell licenses for in-app "buy" buttons.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The wrong patent reform

Business Insider asks a potent question: "Is Congress Trying To Kill American Innovation Through Patent Reform?" Here's the important point from the article:
A new bill - the America Invents Act (formerly the Patent Reform Act of 2011) -is making its way through Congress. It would change America's inventor-friendly patent system to favor whoever files for an application first.

As Clyde Prestowitz, writing on his blog at Foreign Policy, points out, America's penchant for invention is due in large part to its patent system, which grants the original inventor patent rights even if another person or corporation files for the patent first.
I'm in favor of patent reform, especially related to "software" patents. But changing the system so that the first person to file "wins" is the wrong way to do this. I'm very concerned the AIA will lead to more patent "trolls" - even for non-"software" patents.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Honeywell settles patent dispute with BorgWarner

According to Business Week:
Honeywell International Inc. said Monday that it will pay BorgWarner Inc. $32.5 million to resolve a four-year-old patent dispute over auto parts.

The one-time payment gives Honeywell access to BorgWarner's three patents for cast titanium compressor wheels, which are used in turbochargers for commercial vehicle engines. Other terms of the settlement were confidential.
The article doesn't mention the specific patents. But this seems to be a pretty straightforward patent of a physical item, like Apple's patent application for building a better keyboard.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The double-linked list

Here's a concept that's been around in computer programming for as long as I can remember. Assume you have a big list of things (names, whatever) and each item in the list "knows" the item that comes before it, and the item that comes after it.

In other words, the double-linked list. You might use a double-linked list in a variety of applications. Typically, a double-linked list is used in a "stack" operation - because the double-links make it very easy to navigate forward in the list, and just as easy to move backward. Examples include the "Undo/Redo" actions in a word processor, or the "Back/Forward" buttons in a web browser.

This has been a part of computer programming curriculum for decades, but it was a patentable method in 2002 (awarded 2006).

Patent 7,028,023 describes a method where a "list is provided with auxiliary pointers for traversing the list in different sequences. One or more auxiliary pointers enable a fast, sequential traversal of the list with a minimum of computational time. Such lists may be used in any application where lists may be reordered for various purposes."

A more visual explanation of the double-linked list at wikipedia.

I worked with double-linked lists when I worked as a student intern at a geographics company, in 1994. I didn't even a computer programming student (I was in physics, learned programming "on the side") but it was still something easy enough to understand without an extensive programming background.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Expiring old items from a list

Here's another example of a "software" patent, which should be obvious to anyone who's worked in computer programming:

Patent 5,893,120 describes "Methods and apparatus for information storage and retrieval using a hashing technique with external chaining and on-the-fly removal of expired data." In other words, this is a standard way to expire old items from a "list" in computer programming, whenever the list is accessed.

I'm not a programmer (by trade, anyway - but I maintain several web sites on my own) yet this is so trivial and obvious, that I wrote a similar method for expiring password "cookie" hashes in a database several years ago. Every time someone someone accessed the login table (i.e. tried to login, or accessed a web page that required authentication) the method would first scan the login table to see if any passwords had already expired, then it would honor the request from the user.

For example, if we set your password cookie to expire in 3 hours, the database would be cleared of your entry after 3 hours, but only when someone accessed the database.

This is a trivial thing, something that's been taught in computer programming classes for ever. And here, it was a method used in the Linux kernel. Bedrock (a "patent portfolio" company) successfully sued Google over the patent, although Yahoo! defeated Bedrock in a similar suit.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I'm okay with this patent application

AppleInsider writes about a new keyboard that Apple is working on, that has predictive capabilities. I'm okay with this one.

From the description of the patent, this seems to be a physical device, a new way to design keyboards. There's probably a software component on the back-end to take advantage of other features, but the patent application is for a better keyboard not for a better software method.

Friday, May 13, 2011

How to help

If you follow this blog, you may wonder "How can I help?"

Influencing change on "software" patents will not be easy, but it is possible. We need your help to make this happen.

Ultimately, changing how the USPTO considers "software" patents will require a change in law. The right place for this to start is with your congressperson. Remember: it's the job of your senator or US representative to listen to you and bring your concerns to the floor. All it takes is a phone call.

There's one Senate subcommittee that may have strong influence here: the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law. Their jurisdiction, per the web site:
(1) Oversight of laws and policies governing the collection, protection, use and dissemination of commercial information by the private sector, including online behavioral advertising, privacy within social networking websites and other online privacy issues; (2) Enforcement and implementation of commercial information privacy laws and policies; (3) Use of technology by the private sector to protect privacy, enhance transparency and encourage innovation; (4) Privacy standards for the collection, retention, use and dissemination of personally identifiable commercial information; and (5) Privacy implications of new or emerging technologies.
Do you live in Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Utah, or South Carolina? If so, your senator sits on this very important committee.

If we can get several of these senators to understand how "software" patents are stifling innovation of American technology companies, how US companies are spending so much time and money fighting "software" patents when those resources could go to R&D, then the subcommittee can take action.

Contact your senator's office, and voice your concerns over "software" patents. Note that you don't actually have to speak with your senator - ask to speak with the staffer who usually deals with technology issues. An alternate contact might be their State Director.

Feel free to cite the examples in this blog when you speak with your congressperson. After all, that's why I'm writing this blog. My goal is one example per day.

Blogspot had some problems

Looks like some of my posts are gone. Blogspot reported problem earlier this week, but I hope they will recover the lost items for me.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The "pop-up" window

You might also refer to this one as the "pop-under window" in a web browser. You know when you click the "X" button to close a browser, and you get a little window (usually an ad)? There's a patent for that:

6,389,458

"Upon query (or other interaction) by the browser prior to closing page, the traffic control program interacts with the browser software to modify or control one or more of the browser functions, such that the user computer is further directed to a predesignated site or page (and displays a predesignated frame) upon execution of a browser function, instead of accessing the site or page typically associated with the selected browser function."

Issued May 14 2002, so won't expire until 2022.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The "buy now" button

This is also known as the "One Click" patent from Amazon, and affects making purchases by clicking a "buy now" button:

5,960,411

"A method and system for placing an order to purchase an item via the Internet. ... In response to the selection of the order button, the client system sends to the server system a request to purchase the identified item."

Issued September 28, 1999. This won't expire until 2019.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

When patents shut down the little guy

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote with this example of a small business getting shut down over "software" patents.

Patent 7,640,098 describes a process for generating flight plans on the Internet. People have been generating flight plans for as long as we've regulated flight, but tacking "on the Internet" on the end of that process turns it into a patentable "software" method.

As the EFF describes, RunwayFinder (2005) allowed users to check out runway layouts and gather other information about airports, such as current weather, to help them make flight plans. The site's developer ran RunwayFinder out of his home and relied on ad revenue and PayPal donations to run the site. A lawsuit by FlightPrep, owner of 7,640,098, caused RunwayFinder to shut down.

This story has a happy ending, at least. RunwayFinder's web site is back up, with this message:

"RunwayFinder is back on the air! Thanks to your overwhelming support and some great communication sat down with FlightPrep and FlightPrep agreed to dismiss the lawsuit! The exact details of the settlement license are convidential. RunwayFinder doees not ask for or support any further boycott of FlightPrep, its services, products, or owners. This is a big win for RunwayFinder and the pilots who depend on its services! We're back and lawsuit free, come check out www.runwayfidner.com. Again, thanks you for all of your support."

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pay up to patent trolls?

Network World has an interview with Red Hat Software CEO Jim Whitehurst. The title is very telling: "Red Hat CEO hates patent trolls, but says sometimes you just have to pay up". It's a very pessimistic view.

The article mentions that Red Hat Software paid out $4.2 million to settle a "software" patent suit in 2008. That's a significant amount of money, even for a company that will pass $1 billion in revenue. Again, I wonder what actual innovation could be sponsored for $4.2 million, instead of spending it to settle "software" patents?

Which brings me to the subtitle on the Network World article, because it neatly summarizes why I am fighting to change "software" patents: "Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst says software patents impede innovation". This quote from the article sums up that thought very well:
Just like a proprietary software company, one of Red Hat's main goals with settlements is to indemnify its customers against legal actions. Whitehurst said, "I don't think there should be software patents," because they prevent companies from pursuing legitimate business models if they think there's a chance they'll have to pay out patent licensing fees.
But I hope through activism, we can change how "software" patents are treated.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The character generator and the Apple II

The Register had an interesting article the other day, that mentioned Apple co-founder Woz and his view on software patents. Woz told a great story about the Apple II.

From the article:
"The Apple II, okay? I put it together, and I'm going to put characters on my TV set, and there's this trick called a character generator. Okay, that'll help me figure out which dots to put out at the right time to pop up on an American TV," he reminisced.

"And then we find out RCA has a patent on a character generator for any raster-scanned setup," he said. "And they patented it at a time when nobody could have envisioned it really being used or anything ... and they got five bucks for each Apple II, based on this little idea that's not even an idea. Y'know: store the bits, store the bits, then pop in a character on your TV."

[...] "I don't know any other way you could do it - anybody would have come up with that with the same approach."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Paul Allen's patent attack

Let's say you're on a news web site, maybe CNN, reading about the topic of the day. For example: as I write this, Bin Laden's death is still in the news. So maybe the article you're reading has links to related news items:

  • Poll: 56% want death photo released
  • Source: Bin Laden's daughter saw killing
  • Fake bin Laden photo circulates
  • More raid details emerge

Guess what? There's a patent for displaying relevant, related links to a news article.

  • 6,263,507: "Browser for use in navigating a body of information, with particular application to browsing information represented by audio data."
  • 6,034,652 and 6,788,314: "Attention manager for occupying the peripheral attention of a person in the vicinity of a display device"
  • 6,757,682: "Alerting users to items of current interest"

An article on the Wall Street Journal has some interesting reading, and Techdirt has an update from December 29.

It's another example of "software" patents being used as a legal attack.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

1+1 (pat. pending)

I wanted to share this excellent (although long) article at Groklaw, speaking to "software" patents:

1+1 (pat. pending) - Mathematics, Software and Free Speech
Why Software and Patents Need To Get a Divorce


"This article provides a detailed factual explanation of why software is mathematics, complete with the references in mathematical and computer science literature. It also includes a detailed factual explanation of why mathematics is speech, complete once again with references. My hope is that it will help patent lawyers and judges handling patent litigation understand these fundamental truths, so they can apply that technical knowledge to their field of skill."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Emergency mode" on a mobile phone

When you need to dial 9-1-1 on your mobile phone, it might be nice to have the phone direct as much power as possible to the cell transmitter, so you get a clear signal, no accidentally-dropped calls in the middle of reporting an emergency. Seems fairly obvious to me. But Apple filed for a patent on that:

Apple's iPhone Emergency-Mode Processor & Features Patent

I couldn't find a link directly into the USPTO, but you can use PAIR to search for application file number 11/999,547.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Patent busting

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was founded in 1990 - long before "the Internet" was something most people had heard about - to defend "digital freedoms". They've done a lot of good in these last 21 years.

One of their efforts is the EFF Patent Busting Project: "Tired of bogus software patents? So are we! To combat these annoying and often dangerous legal weapons, EFF has launched the Patent Busting Project to take down some of worst offenders."

They have a "top ten most wanted" poster on their site, demonstrating "crimes against the public domain, willful ignorance of prior art, egregious display of obviousness". There are some interesting items, showing the impact the EFF has had:

  • A patent for streaming audio and video over the Internet (now invalid) 5,132,992
  • A system and method to record a live performance (concert) and recording them to media (CD) within minutes of the concert ending (now busted) 6,614,729
  • A patent for making telephone calls over the Internet (re-examined) 6,243,373
  • A method to play (card) games over the Internet (re-examined) 6,264,560
  • A patent for hosting and assigning domain names - such as badpatents.blogspot.com (now busted) 6,687,746
  • A patent to store URLs in a bar code, that might be printed in an ad (narrowed) 6,199,048
  • A patent for taking and scoring tests over the Internet (re-examined) 6,513,042
  • A patent to emulate a handheld game console using software 6,672,963
  • A software method to parse customer emails - for example, to route them to a Helpdesk (invalid) 6,411,947
  • A system for combining different music files together, then playing them over the Internet (narrowed) 5,886,274

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The progress bar

Yes, there's a patent on the "progress bar" concept. How many applications today use them? A few examples: loading a web page, installing operating system patches, booting your computer.

5,301,348

A dynamic progress marker icon is disclosed that dynamically changes to mark the progress of a task. In this manner, the user is kept informed of the status of a task being performed without resorting to language sensitive messages such as "Now processing object number 12 of 100".

Issued April 5, 1994. Under United States patent law, for patents filed before 1995, the term is 17 years from the issue date, or 20 years from the earliest claimed domestic priority date, whichever is longer. So this patent actually expired earlier this month (1994 + 17 = 2011).