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Summary:

Apple apparently has started filing patents for certain applications. And one of them looks exactly like an actual app — Where To — that has been available on the iTunes app store for a long time. No wonder the guys behind the app are upset.

Updated on August 11, 2010 at 4.24 PST: FutureTap reports that an Apple attorney got it touch with them and the company is doing the right thing.

Apple is contemplating steps to attribute the screenshot in the patent application to FutureTap. The patent application in question does not claim as inventive the pictured user interface nor the general concept of an integrated travel services application.  We appreciate your taking time out to discuss the matter and will keep you updated.

Updated again at 10 am PST after first update last night at 8.15 pm, PST:: Apple apparently has started filing patents for certain applications. And one of them looks exactly like an actual app — Where To — that has been available on the iTunes app store for a long time. No wonder the guys behind the app are upset — they can’t afford to make Apple mad. And if they don’t, then they might lose control of their own app. In a blog post, Ortwin Gentz, the founder of FutureTap, the company behind the app called Where To writes:

At first, we couldn’t believe what we saw and felt it can’t be true that someone else is filing a patent including a 1:1 copy of our start screen. Things would be way easier of course if that “someone else” would be really an exterior “someone else”. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. We’re faced with a situation where we’ve to fear that our primary business partner is trying to “steal” our idea and design. So how to deal with that? — As some of you know, we’ve always been more than grateful for the platform Apple created. And, in fact, still are. However, we can’t ignore it if the #1 recognition value of our (currently) only app potentially is under fire.

Where To? 1.0 with its characteristic home screen has been launched on day 1 of the App Store. The patent has been filed in December 2009. And clearly, the number of details with all the icons, their ordering and the actual app name “Where To?” in the title bar (which, as a sidenote, doesn’t make a lot of sense as a module in a potential iTravel app) can’t be randomly invented the same way by someone else. I’m not a lawyer. I can’t really judge whether the inclusion of a 1:1 copy of our start screen in someone else’s patent is legal. I just have to say, it doesn’t feel right.

My first reaction to this: now this is bad form on part of Apple. And if any patent attorneys are reading this, please leave a comment or get in touch. More to follow!

Dan Wineman explains that ”the diagram is just part of an example of one way the technology in question might operate. I think it’s more likely that the people involved in drawing up this patent simply didn’t think about the message it would send to developers. I’m sure it’s not Apple’s practice (or intention) to plunder the App Store submissions bin for new things to patent.”

Reader Gary Watson says: “After reading the claims, it’s clear that the spinning wheel image stolen from the 3rd party app was not part of the claimed invention at all and was just an illustration. You see this a lot in patents, where a an exemplar device such as a Dell laptop is used in a drawing but is not part of the claims.”

Ian Betteridge writes:

“What Apple is attempting to patent, in simple terms, are software systems consisting of a back end and a GPS-enabled device capable of sending and receiving location data in the context (specifically) of air travel. WhereTo? doesn’t actually do what Apple is describing. So why has Apple used their interface (which isn’t covered by the patent) in the application? Probably because they need to put something in, and that’s the best thing that the patent attorney creating the filing could find. Stupid, but not uncommon.
Reader Steve G, a patent attorney says: First, nobody should be blaming Apple for the drawings in the application. An outside firm prepared the application, which is generally reviewed in-house before filing. So someone in Apple’s patent group would have to know about this app to even have been able to object to it being in the application. From my experience, in-house attorneys are usually overloaded with work, and would anyway be more interested in the claims (more on this in a moment) and not the drawings. even from a copyright perspective, this would most likely be considered “fair use” because the screenshot is used in a teaching context (in the patent application as an example of the existing art) and does not replace the app itself (doesn’t affect the market value of the app). If I were advising FutureTap, I would consider this to be some free advertising.

By Om Malik

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  1. Apple better hope that was a major error and not intended at all cause this goes beyond unbelievable and disgusting behavior.

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    1. I have pinged Apple PR and am waiting for an official reaction to this.

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      1. Reading the actual patent application, it looks like the WhereTo screenshot is an example of a third-party app using the technology Apple is trying to patent, rather than WhereTo being what Apple is trying to patent.

        The inclusion of a TV with a screenshot of The Dark Knight in a movie-playing device patent application doesn’t make the application an attempt to patent Batman.

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    2. you sound hysterical

      chill out.

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  2. Paul E. Ester Thursday, August 5, 2010

    I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Apple realized these code monkeys are noobless about patents and this is just a move to protect them from microogle who have likely already ripped off this interface. They should be grateful aapl shows much love.

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    1. What have you been smoking?

      What do they gain on Apple patenting the base idea for their application? What do they gain on having their screenshot in Apples patent?

      And what is that “microogle” thing about? What’s up with “who have likely already ripped off this interface”? Can you prove that either Microsoft or Google are patenting or ripping off exactly everything they can think of?

      Sure, M$ is a patent troll, but they don’t claim EVERYTHING they add to their software or hardware as their own inventions, no matter how old it is. Google don’t even do much at all with patents.

      Also, why is it better for them that Apple patents it then anybody else?

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  3. “I’m sure it’s not Apple’s practice (or intention) to plunder the App Store submissions bin for new things to patent.”

    It’s fairly obvious that’s exactly what they did.

    As clear a case of plagiarism as one could imagine.

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    1. i’m no lawyer guy person, but i wonder if someone’s trying to be bold here since technically there was no prior art – it’s the same art!

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    2. this is totally insane … non-obviousness is one of the main requirements for a patent, right?

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      1. Okay, now that I see Gary Watson’s comment (and reread it again in Om’s update) I’m less outraged at this. Maybe Apple (or the patent filer personally) is trying to flatter FutureTap, but it looks lazy to me. At best.

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        1. Chris

          I am also trying to talk to some patent attorneys so get a bit more context. I guess, part of this iterative journalism ;-)

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  4. [...] I’d love to hear some patent lawyers chime in on the whole situation. [Venomous Porridge via GigaOm] Tagged:appleappsiphoneiphone appspatentssoftwarewhere [...]

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  5. They even copied the same time! Way to copy the small details apple.

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    1. Look at all the pictures of iPhones and iPod touches on the Apple website /promo materials. They allshow 9.42.

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  6. After reading the claims, it’s clear that the spinning wheel image stolen from the 3rd party app was not part of the claimed invention at all and was just an illustration. You see this a lot in patents, where a an exemplar device such as a Dell laptop is used in a drawing but is not part of the claims. The two independent claims on this application have to do with various actions taken in a travel app once the device is powered back on (i.e. suggesting that the user has turned the unit back on after landing). Curiously, and stupidly, the claims don’t cover triggering these actions when the user switches off airplane mode which is a more reliable indicator of arrival, IMHO.

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    1. Thanks Gary. Appreciate the heads-up here.

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  7. If WhereTo has been on the AppStore since day 1 and Apple only filed their patent in December 2009 there’s a term for that: Prior Art.

    In addition, Apple goes after firms all the time for infringing on their copyrighted and trademarked designs… they’re on the wrong side of the law on this thing big time.

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    1. @DHMS wrote, “… there’s a term for that: Prior Art.”

      An excellent, if shoulda-been-obvious point. Despite the hand-wringing by people who should know better, a clear example of prior art will get your patent claims thrown out of court, should you bother to try to enforce them. Apple’s lawyers can’t be so clueless as to think they can muscle people out of their work that way.

      I agree that including the artwork from an app is rather unseemly but the developers, once they get over the shock, would be hard-pressed to show any harm from the publicity. Even if the developers’ work is copyrighted, so that Apple couldn’t use that design in a product without triggering an easy settlement against Apple, you might claim that the submission is fair, non-infringing use.

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  8. Reece Tarbert Friday, August 6, 2010

    our primary business partner

    Business partner?!? Not to be blunt, but someone seems to be confused about the kind of relationship going on here…

    RT.

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