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Reading The Apple Patent Tea Leaves

Reading The Apple Patent Tea Leaves

by , 12:00 PM EST, March 4th, 2003

Apple has been busy patenting everything under the sun it seems, and some of those patents may promise interesting things to come. [Edit's Note: Check our follow-up article for differences between utility patents and design patents.] Others might make you stop, scratch your head and ask "huh, you can do that?" If you want to see the full list of Apple's published patents and pending patent applications, just visit the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO). For those that don't crave reading through hundreds of patents, here's a quick patent round-up of user interface, program, hardware, and otherwise interesting developments from Apple.

User Interface
In a stunning technological development, Apple Computer, Inc. has been awarded a patent on the trash icon. You read that correctly. Now view it in all its glory:

The design patent was filed on February 13, 2002; and with a term of 14 years, Apple can now rest safely that others will not duplicate the "revolutionary" ornamental design of this user interface element. Somewhat ironically, Microsoft Windows 3.1, OS/2 2.1 and a Corel Gallery Clip Art Catalog are cited as earlier publications. No icon or UI element, apparently, is too insignificant for Apple to patent; not even the Preview.app's icon, the progress bar, or the menubar.

Apple also obtained a patent on its Technicolor close, hide, and expand window gumdrop buttons. Perhaps of note is that Apple was at least considering employing square Jolly Ranchers at some point.

The genie effect and dialog sheets have been secured as well.

Interestingly, Apple secured a dock-like variant. It seems that at one point the dock was supposed to act more like an expandable version of the NeXTstep multi-tabbed shelf with "handle bar" "drawer space partitions." In some ways, this seems to be a better concept than the current implementation.


Click this thumbnail for the full-size image

Not resting on its laurels, Apple is trying to secure a patent for spring-loaded-folder type technology, and Apple has secured a patent for playing sounds synchronized to user interface object interactions (you know, hearing a sustained hum when you drag a file around the screen). I take no responsibility if you're having a Rip Van Winkle moment after reading those particular patents.

Programs
If you want to automate tasks without Apple's blessing, you had better check out its patent for a "Computer system for automatically instantiating tasks designated by a user," which seems very reminiscent of QuicKeys or a front end to Unix's decades old cron. You be the judge.


Click this thumbnail for a full-sized image

iTune's user interface was also found worthy of a design patent. You say that's old news and want new scuttlebutt? I'm not sure what to make of this chromatic window with a map that blurs while keeping the foreground icon in focus. Maybe iMap? [Author's Note: This is more likely protecting the interface of iDVD; thanks to drewb2b for pointing this out.]

More likely than not, Apple is just attempting to protect its chromatic UI style in general. One potential explanation is that at one point Apple considered blurring background data when foreground data became available.

Hardware
No one better knock off the iPod or PowerBook designs, either, as Steve Jobs was the first named inventor of both. No, Apple didn't forget the iBook or Cube; they're all patented, too. Can you hear the cease and desist letters churning from the printers yet?

Interesting Developments
Apple's push to portability seems to come with some actual thoughtfulness for protecting your data. This technology will park your hard drive heads if it senses your device is falling. It sounds like a great idea for all portable devices.

Leagues of patent attorneys have been slaving away for Apple, and you say you're still not impressed? Well, lest you think only Microsoft has deep thoughts on Digital Rights Management (DRM) and/or copy protection, Apple has been busy conjuring its own DRM magic as evinced by this patent. The basic premise seems to be based on watermarking digital content and then obtaining an encrypted "permission" key on demand (perhaps after buying it off the Web or through iTunes, as has been reported by the LA Times). If the decrypted permission key matches the watermark in the content, then voilá, you may record the content (but the watermark could stay put), otherwise, no soup for you.

If such copy protection were to have any bite, seemingly, it would have to be implemented system wide and not just in iTunes. After all, what worth would such DRM technology have if iTunes refuses to play unauthorized content, while other applications happily played it? Based on the patent, it's more likely that Apple would chose to limit recording/duplication of such content throughout the filesystem, e.g., including your iPod and CD/DVD burner. Thus, any format that doesn't clear the check would not be copyable.

For copyright holders, such a solution could be superior to introducing yet another custom/protected file format. The reason is that "regular" MP3s (or AAC/MPEG4) could, over time, be subverted and injected with these watermarks, and the filesystem access controls could slowly be applied remotely (e.g., Apple has database and scripting technology enabling "a computer [to] be configured locally or remotely on a network") in an attempt to "wean" users from unfettered control over their content. Of course, one wonders about applications that do not employ standard operating system level file manipulation calls.

Regardless, Apple already has one pervasive operating system component that could easily benefit from such technology. The Cocoa font panel has a "Get Fonts" pop-up menu option (which used to be called "Buy Fonts" at one point). When you select "Get Fonts" you are taken to a "Coming Soon" Web page at Apple. As Apple does control both hardware and software, i.e., "the whole widget" as it were, it may be better poised than Microsoft to establish a Palladium-like pay-to-play system, and such a system, if implemented, would allow Apple to control how you access any and/or all content.

What's It All Mean?
I think the short message of all this activity is that Apple aims to protect its look-and-feel on every front. Having lost the look-and-feel UI war by mistakenly relying on copyrights, Apple is relying more on patents than it did in the past. Likely, this strategy will do a better job of securing their current UI, than did their previous attempts. As for the DRM patent, one doesn't have to be a gypsy to figure out that Apple has technology to enable restrictions on accessing data content. The only questions seem to be when, or if, Apple is going to drop the DRM bomb on its customers?

John Kheit is an attorney. Please don't hold that against him. This work does not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of The Mac Observer or even John for that matter. No assertions of fact are being made, but rather the reader is simply asked to consider the possibilities. This post-article nugget might provide you with some relief if you find the current Finder lacking in features and too restrictive. Check out PathFinder.

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