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More on the terrible burden of patents

In my previous post, I complained about patent trolls — obscure companies using their patent portfolios to attack developers who have no practical way to determine whether or not they’re violating somebody’s patent when they write software. But big, innovative companies who file for patents and use those patents offensively are just as bad, if not worse.

Philip Elmer-DeWitt takes a look at one of the patents that Apple has accused Android handset-maker HTC of violating. In this case, the patent is easy to understand and is associated with a popular and well-known feature of iOS. The patent in question is for the feature that enables iOS to detect data like phone numbers or addresses in text that is being displayed and turn them into links that allow the user to perform the appropriate action — dialing the number on the phone or launching the Maps application with a map of the address.

In this case, I’d argue that the patent fails the test of obviousness. Nobody who designed a phone that displays text would not think to enable users to dial phone numbers embedded in that text by tapping on the number. I’d also guess that there’s plenty of prior art in this area as well. Certainly this is related to the work done on microformats.

There are also email clients going way back that automatically made email addresses embedded in messages clickable. There are even ad schemes that scan pages and convert keywords into ads automatically. The feature in question is useful but not innovative. And yet Apple is finding success petitioning the International Trade Commission to enforce this patent.

Unfortunately, as obvious as it seems to me that the entire system is a disaster, I don’t see any path forward for patent reform in the near future.

4 Comments

  1. As someone who’s just considering getting into iOS development, all of this patent trolling is discouraging me from even getting started.

    I think the only way we’ll really see any patent reform is if the powerful companies you mentioned — Apple, Google — find themselves on the wrong end of enough patent suits to put their OWN patent interests aside and use their lobbying influence for the greater good.

  2. Google and HTC can at least defend themselves. The real threat of the patent system is to the small developer. One letter from a lawyer claiming infringement is usually enough to force a shutdown or expensive settlement. It’s bullying, and anti-innovation.

    The patent system makes sense for inventions that take 20+ years of hard, secret research and engineering to create something. It’s insane to apply it to ideas that are dreamed up at a dinner party (literally, in the case of Intellectual Ventures).

  3. Skype has been turning phone numbers in Internet Explorer into things you can click to dial for years.

  4. “Unfortunately, as obvious as it seems to me that the entire system is a disaster, I don’t see any path forward for patent reform in the near future.” Replace “patent reform” with your disaster of choice and you’ve got a summation of current events.

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