Tech companies are granted patents all the time, but today Apple was given yet another massive weapon in the battle that many are now calling the patent wars. We’ve talked about how pointless the patent wars are, patent related bans, and even touched on the entire thing being a zero sum game, but today the patent that Apple has been granted is so broad that I felt it was worth at least a mention.
Just granted this week, United States Patent number 8223134 covers a “Portable electronic device, method, and graphical user interface for displaying electronic lists and documents.” It includes and covers quite a number of features, including email lists, camera menus, document lists, and text messaging, all related to the way their multitouch interface works. Based on some of the wording in the patent, it sounds like this covers some very basic multitouch navigation functionality. The patent discusses the complications in mobile device menus at the time of filing (around 2007), and suggests Apple’s new touch based interface as the solution. The problem is the broad scope of the patent, which covers things as simple as actionable lists that can be found on all kinds of devices, as well as lists of emails or documents where the title can be clicked to open the file.
Basically, this patent could likely be applied against any device with a rudimentary touchscreen interface, and I would venture to guess that most current touchscreen devices are in violation already. Once again, this wouldn’t be a problem for something specific, complicated, and unique, but because the patent covers such basic features, it could be quite a problem for any mobile device maker. I don’t necessarily think that some mobile software patents shouldn’t be issued, but there is certainly a case to be made that these very broad patents shouldn’t be granted, and that patents be limited to more specific and unique ideas.
Anyway, there are only a few possible uses for a patent as broad as this one. Apple could try to enforce it and get rid of any device it wants, brandish it to make a little money, or just keep it to sell or use later. None of these scenarios seem beneficial to consumers, and this patent isn’t even really protecting innovation. I don’t think Apple is really being hurt by the fact that other devices have functional touchscreen lists and menus, but because of other more advanced features. Of course, that’s the problem with the patent wars, and why I dislike them so much.