Patents shouldn't apply to the obvious

Will the next-generation of non-iOS phones have us licking the device to scroll and tapping it on our foreheads to zoom?

Over dinner this week, my friends and I were discussing the Apple-Samsung patent lawsuit when I joked that the next-generation of non-iOS phones would have us licking the device to scroll and tapping it on our foreheads to zoom.

Lest you haven't heard, in one of the most hotly watched patent trials, the U.S. court on Aug. 25 ruled in Apple's favor  and agreed Samsung had infringed several of Cupertino's patents including double-tap to zoom and one-finger to scroll.

Samsung, not surprisingly, is appealing the court's decision but should this be dismissed, these basic gestures--which have become almost a reflex for many of us--may no longer be available on non-Apple devices.

Reactions from the general public and industry analysts have been mixed. Some believe the South Korean electronics giant will be able to move on without much impact and modify its software  to work around the patented features.

Consumers in Asia expressed concerns it could stifle Samsung's ability to innovate and pave the way for Apple to emerge a monopoly in the market.

More importantly, I think the lawsuit highlights yet again a pressing need for changes to be made to the tech patent system.

Patents were designed to protect intellectual property and encourage innovation. But when there are U.S. patents even for how peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are constructed, questions need to be raised over whether common things and methods should be patentable.

U.S. Patent No. 6,004,596, for instance, was awarded to U.S.-based The J.M. Smucker Company under its product brand "Uncrustables", and outlined how sealed, crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were made. It triggered a public outcry because it appeared that an obvious and common invention had been patented. A reexamination was called and a U.S. court eventually rejected the patent in 2005.

I'm not calling for patents to be abolished. On the contrary, I agree they are necessary to ensure the IT industry continues to innovate and those that do so well should be rewarded accordingly. But patents should protect inventions that are truly novel, unique and intricate, and not serve to restrict varying applications of basic, fundamental features.

As ZDNet US blogger James Kendrick said: "The patent situation has sunk to such a low point because it is no longer serving the function it needs to serve. It has changed over time to allow minor changes and improvements in existing technology to become protected by patents... It's now largely serving to recognize minor improvements in existing technology. What is the natural evolution of technology, and what everyone should want to occur, is now being patented.

"This business of granting patents for things like how the user touches a screen, or slightly different ways of interacting with existing technology is just insane."

One of our readers highlighted a good point. In a post on the ZDNet Facebook page, "Royford Robinson" noted the need for a level of familiarity between products. "Just as if you buy a car, you don't want to relearn how to drive again if you're in a different brand of car," he said, describing the Samsung-Apple lawsuit as a "stupid court battle".

Imagine the mayhem if the steering wheel in a Honda makes the car turn left when the driver steers left, but does the exact opposite in a Ford.

Patents should be applied to protect true innovation and intellectual property, instead of some company's maneuver to shackle the competition .

Until then, Samsung can find some comfort today after a  Tokyo district judge ruled its Galaxy smartphones and the Galaxy Tab did not violate Apple's patent on media transfer.