Should patents be device or task specific?

Summary:I was reading The Register's coverage of a talk given by Creative CEO Sim Wong Hoo who claims that implementations of side-scrolling hierarchical menus such as those found on Apple's iPods are infringing on his company's recently awarded patent (US patent 6,928,433).  Apparently, the first appearance of such a user interface showed up on one of Creative's early generation MP3 players in 2000.

I was reading The Register's coverage of a talk given by Creative CEO Sim Wong Hoo who claims that implementations of side-scrolling hierarchical menus such as those found on Apple's iPods are infringing on his company's recently awarded patent (US patent 6,928,433).  Apparently, the first appearance of such a user interface showed up on one of Creative's early generation MP3 players in 2000.   The Register story went on to size up the royalty factor that Creative might be able to tap into by citing the expectation that Apple should sell 22 million iPods by the end of the year. 

Having used Apple's Macs extensively, it seems to me that the user interface found on iPods is just a slight variation on the Mac's filesystem browser (particularly the 'Open' and 'Save' dialogs).  Both browse for digitally stored infromation.  Both go sideways as they dig deeper.  Or how about the sideways exploding JavaScript or DHTML menus that have been around forever. What was the first Web site to use those?  To me, the iPod's version of these menus just seems to be a very cleverly reworked derivative that's designed to accomodate the iPod's tiny display. Given that all of these are essentially sideways oriented file browsers, I'm not sure the differences make one so unique that it's deserving of a patent (probably why I could never get a job as a patent inspector... not that I'd want one).  So, my questions are:

  • Referring to the UI on the Mac vs. that of the iPod, is one just a derivation of the other? And what of similar menus on the Web?
  • If so, what came first?
  • If the Mac OS 'implementation' came first, did it come before or after Creative's MP3 player shipped in 2000?
  • If it did, and the answer to the derivative question is yes, could Apple or someone else make a prior art claim that invalidates Creative's patent? 
  • If it didn't, could Creative claim that Mac's infringe on its patent as well?
  • Back to the derivation question, if one isn't just a derivation of the other, what do you think makes them different enough from each other or from similar implementations on the Web, enough to warrant a patent?
It's not that I believe Apple's iPods are worthy of my defense (as I've written before, I think you should steer clear of iPods as well as anything else containing proprietary DRM technology).  It's really more about wondering whether patents should be device/task specific.  Can I, for example, patent a slight variation for car dashboards that uses side-scrolling hierarchical menus to browse the status of a vehicle's various systems (engine, brakes, etc.)? After all, isn't that the same thing? 

Topics: Patents

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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