Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Patent Problem

A week or so ago, there was an article that Creative Technology has been awarded a patent for an MP3 player user interface. They applied for the patent in January 2001. This demonstrates one of the major problems with current technology patents. First, the approval took 4 and a half years. That is an incredibly long time in the tech world. According to Moore's law, the speed of processors doubles every 18 months. The time from Creative's application to the approval was three full iterations of Moore's law doubling. Thanks to that delay, the market-dominating iPod could legal problems for Apple. That wonderful gadget that Apple has had on the market for 4 years now is in violation of the patent.

Another issue is the patent process in general. This article does a good job of describing the issues. One particular fact that I found interesting was that Apple's woes can be traced to the fact that its patent application for the iPod's user interface was rejected. Apple filed the application in 2002. It was rejected because of a similar pending application by Microsoft. However, that application was submitted after the iPod was already on sale. So Microsoft tries to patent something that Apple already has on the market, then Apple also tries to patent it. Apple, the original inventor, is rejected because of the "prior art" submitted by Microsoft? It doesn't make sense to me either.

And, last, but not least, you have the idiocy of the patent itself. The patent states that the user interface "enables selection of at least one track in a portable media player as a user sequentially navigates through a hierarchy using three or more successive screens on the display of the player." How is this an innovation? Computers are built on a basis of hierarchical files. Every CD ripping program I have ever seen organizes files this way. You select the artist, then you select the disc, then you select the track. That's 3 selections, which leads to a natural representation as 3 screens. There is absolutely nothing highly innovative about applying this to a portable player. It is an obvious application of an existing idea.

The end result of such patent awards is that filing paperwork is rewarded more than innovation. Apple has created a sleek device that has completely dominated the market. Creative has not been able to compete. However, they will cash in on millions because they filled out the paperwork for an obvious software application first. Theoretically, they could refuse to license the patent to Apple. That would obviously wreak a lot of havoc on Apple's sales. The USPTO should be a lot pickier about the patents it awards to ensure that it is properly rewarding creativity and innovation instead of bureaucracy. A good place to start would be rejecting the 99.9% of software patent applications that are obvious extensions to anyone in the tech field.


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