The Creative Way

By | October 26, 2005

After trying for almost three years to obtain a patent for the iPod’s rotational wheel interface, Apple’s application has been rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). According to AppleInsider, “Standing in Apple’s way appears to be a prior filing by inventor John Platt, who submitted a patent application for a similar software design for a portable device in May of 2002 – just five months before [Apple’s VP, Jeff] Robbin submitted his claims on behalf of Apple.”

John Platt, by the way, is a Senior Researcher in the Knowledge Tools Group at a little company called Microsoft. I doubt this is mere coincidence.

As it turns out now, Creative Labs, the loss-making MP3 player rival that made a self-proclaimed “war” against the iPod maker, is saying that it was recently awarded a U.S. patent for the menu structure currently used in the iPod. In patent application #755723, the Singapore-based company describes a system of drill-down menus, where each selection leads to another list of selections.

Apparently, Creative applied for the patent describing its hierarchical user interface in January 2001. The patent award means that any company (not just Apple) would have to license the user interface from Creative in order to introduce MP3 players based on that type of navigation.

“Apple tried to claim invention, but this patent dispels that,” Creative Labs President Craig McHugh claimed. “We are going to look at all the alternatives that patent provides. We can look at legal remedies.”

But while trumpeting the patent, Creative has yet to say how the company will try to enforce it, leading some industry watchers to speculate that the company may be using the patent more as a publicity tool rather than to protect its intellectual property.

Still, whoever granted the patent to Creative is a complete moron. Drill-down menus have been around like forever. This kind of hierarchical menu system is hardly an “invention”. It is an obvious user interface that existed on computers, electronic devices and even mobile phones. While Creative’s patent application was valid with regards to timing, it fails the “not obvious by a person skilled in the arts” requirements of a patent.

Shame on the patent examiner for letting this slip through the system. And shame on Sim Wong Hoo for relying on such sleight-of-hand tactics to get back at a competitor.

Update (Jan 9, 2006): An interesting story in BusinessWeek on how defensive (or rather, “offensive”) patenting is wasting companies’ money and slowing the development of new products.

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