Opinion » Cybernaut

Prior art for the people



One of the most entertaining moments of the Apple vs. Samsung trial was when Samsung, in defence of its designs, attempted to nullify the originality of Apple's products using footage of tablets from science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The idea wasn't to suggest that Apple wasn't innovative, just that their own patents were invalid for reasons of "prior art" — a concept in copyright where you can't patent a concept or idea, whether its patented or not, if pior art exists that predates the patent. For example, if I invented a two-way wristwatch communicator, it would be hard to get a patent for it because the idea was used in Dick Tracy comic books 80 years ago.

Currently, the U.S. patent office, snowed under by questionable patents of every description and criticized widely for its decision to award vague and opportunistic (after the fact) patents that have spurred dozens of high profile lawsuits, is looking at prior art as its savior.

As reported at Ars Technica (www.arstechnica.com), the United States Patent and Trademark Office is now looking "to improve patent quality by soliciting greater feedback from the general public about pending patents." The America Invents Act passed by government made this inevitable anyway, but the patent office has gone a step further with the idea by creating a peer review process that invites the general public to comment on pending patents. Specifically, they're looking for submissions related to "prior art" that would render any patent applications null and void, unless they contained something truly new and innovative.

To do this, they're taking a page from Stack Exchange, the company that launched the popular Stack Overflow website for programmers, to create a new site called Ask Patents (http://patents.stackexchange.com).

This is a fantastic idea as it allows people, including the dedicated open sources community, to make submissions about any existing or pending patent applications that the patent office and keep companies honest. For example, one submission last week questioned whether Apple's Magsafe patent was valid, given the prior existence of other magnetic power connectors. If the submission is successful, that patent will be invalidated and other laptop companies can safely use similar magnet systems on their systems without threat of lawsuit, creating a new industry standard — and preventing hundreds of perfectly good computers from being accidentally yanked off tables and desks as a result of legs and feet becoming entangled in power cords.

Another submission asks whether a patent can be invalidated because of prior art, referring to World Inc.'s lawsuit against Blizzard Entertainment for using online interaction between avatars that they patented. The submitter pointed out that virtual reality systems predate World Inc.'s 1995 patents, and therefore they never should have been awarded. If the submitter really wanted to be picky, he could have also referenced Neal Stephenson's science fiction novel from 1992 called Snow Crash, or William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer as prior art in this area — and maybe saved Blizzard billions of dollars.

While the idea of consulting the public and establishing prior art will help to alleviate all the lawsuit situation that is all but crippling the tech industry, Ars Technica suggests that it doesn't go far enough because there simply are not enough people with the technical know-how to successfully challenge patents. Still, it's early days, and things will improve as people learn more about patents and prior art is a established in a number of areas. Judging from what I've seen so far, it's already a success.

Apple Maps back in the glove compartment

While it's probably five years too late, one of the things that Android users have always had over iPhone users is the ability to use Google Maps for navigation. Apple recognized the gap and in iOS6 sought to remedy this omission by releasing Apple Maps, a proprietary, turn-by-turn navigation system. Earlier they cancelled Google Maps integration into their phones, presumably because their customers won't need it.

Reviews have not been kind. Apple Maps are an "Apocalyptic Horror Show," according to one reviewer. Another found 17 people that Apple Maps has "Horribly Misled."

The maps are poor. They contain references to streets and landmarks like railway stations that no longer exist, and don't include streets and landmarks that do. The visual presentation is way off as well, and the turn-by-turn navigation doesn't work very well. 3D view is a disaster, turning roads into roller coasters, melding aerial photos into a mishmash of melting buildings and bridges.

That's not to say that Apple can't fix Apple Maps, they'll get to it, I'm sure, just that there's really no reason for Apple Maps to exist at all except in the pettiest sense that Apple is in competition with Google. Google Maps work fine, and, with a little tweaking (and money) could offer iPhone owners turn-by-turn navigation. It's a little strange for Apple to release something half-baked like this, but in the absence of any real technological leaps with the iPhone 5 it's easy to see why they felt they needed to include it. I do know one thing, and that's Steve Jobs would never have released Apple Maps in its current state.