56 Comments

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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  9. There must be a reasonable explanation for this, I’m sure they’re doing this for the developer who made it. But they should have contacted the developer before doing so.

    Looking forward to hear the answer from Apple on this matter.

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  10. This case is very similar, they don’t even bother to change the design pls. take a look at this site http://www.hoerup.dk/tech/archives/culture-apple_ripoff_bang_olufsen.php

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  11. Apple continues to strive in spite of a rocked ship. Exemplary temperament.

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  12. Having waded through reading the full patent (man, those things are tedious) it’s pretty clear to me that this isn’t a design patent – which would cover the “ornamental design” of the application – and instead covers a much broader spectrum of software methods.

    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.

    These systems allow a traveler to create an itinerary and access services based on that itinerary as they travel. These services could include electronically unlocking doors of travel service providers (so, for example, giving you access through your iPhone to an executive lounge) or distributing on-the-fly upgrade offers based on location.

    WhereTo? doesn’t actually do what Apple is describing. It allows you to manually search for services close by, using a really nice interface. But it doesn’t communicate with service providers’ systems, or provide you with location-based offers based on an itinerary.

    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.

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    1. Thank you!

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  13. [...] And the coverage on the back of it follows suit. John Brownlee at Cult of Mac titled his “Apple submits software patent for other developer’s app, including title and design“. Om Malik at GigaOm (probably my favourite tech site) was so astounded by what he thinks Apple is doing he had to preface his post title with “Not a joke“. [...]

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  14. maybe apple are already in discussion in buying out the company…

    sounds like this is something which Apple would like to deeply integrate within iOS.

    I can’t but help thing about Apple’s acquisition of Siri.

    Again Apple have tried to deliver this personal butler metaphor before — this time they are close to cracking it.

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  15. http://icontrolpad.com/

    This is far from a one off.

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  16. I never realized as thoroughly as this morning that my fellow Mac fans are comprised mostly of anal retentives and paranoids. :-]

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    1. Just this morning? How did you miss it for so long?

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  17. This post lacks context — the image is 1:1, no question there, but what claims does the patent application make?

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    1. Mark read the updates at the bottom of the post.

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  18. 1) Why has this story singled out the “Where To” app? The Apple patent application shows at least three iPhone apps as examples of services that might be referenced by the proposed invention: Where To? (Future Tap), Sudoku (Mighty Might Good), and Guide You (Comma Publications). All are carefully rendered just as they currently exist.

    2) What exactly is being complained of? Another Apple patent application shows a Sony TV, so labelled, as part of one embodiment of the invention. Should Sony sue?

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  19. [...] orden i rubriken börjar med a, inte så illa. Jo Apple har gjort något ganska fult, de har enligt GigaOM använd en av apparna i App Store för en patentansökning. Appen Where To? – GPS points of [...]

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  20. As a patent attorney, I can comment on this. I do not do any work for Apple, so this is just my opinion. (Yes, it’s the usual lawyerly butt-covering.)

    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.

    Second, the Where To drawing is used as an example of types of information that may be available to a user. I’m guessing here, but I suppose the inventors provided the attorneys with some general information (and no drawing), the attorney prepared the drawing, and used the screenshot from the Where To app as the example.

    Third, the claims of this patent application (the most important part, legally speaking) have nothing to do with the Where To app. Though anyone with a location services app might want to look into this…

    Fourth, 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.

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    1. Dilip Andrade Friday, August 6, 2010

      After quickly spinning through the application myself, I’m in agreement with Steve. Apple isn’t trying to patent the WhereTo application’s functionality per se.

      It was used as an example of an embodiment, that is it was used as an example to show how this could be used.

      Having said that, I think that there’s plenty of blame to go around here for what I think is some relatively offside behaviour. The agent who drafted this should have known better. Reproducing a screenshot from a 3rd Party asoftware application may have repercussions in terms of a Copyright violation.

      From the Apple side of things, I know that in house patent cousel is often rather busy (from experience), but I think that the inventors and in house counsel have an obligation here in that they likely used WhereTo in an example of what they wanted to patent, and should have noticed the replication of the figure in the application review process.

      If counselling FutureTap, I’d probably tell them to keep quiet and not bite the hand the keeps them in the store, and to enjoy the free publicity while it lasts.

      I’m now going to look at WhereTo.

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  21. [...] Es sind mal wieder eine ganze Reihe Patente bekannt geworden, die Apple bereits im Dezember 2009 eingereicht hat. Das ist an sich nicht ungewöhnlich. Doch unter den neuen Patenten befindet sich auch eine Zeichnung einer Travel-App, die einer seit dem Start des App Stores verfügbaren App haargenau gleicht. Und diese App hat Apple nicht selbst entwickelt. GigaOm erzählt die ganze Geschichte. [...]

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  22. Perhaps Apple is patenting application ideas not for their own use but for Appstore developers, allowing iOS developers to use the patented idea but not allowing e.g. Android developers to use the same idea.

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  23. [...] PatentlyApple, GigaOM] Posted in: Blog Tagged with: apple, iTravel [...]

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  24. How dare they!
    If Dear Leader believes their work is worthy they should be proud! We all work for the good of Dear Leader and his magical and revolutionary creations. These Where To ingrates should be punished for questioning Dear Leader’s actions!

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  25. You know, if you go back to the late 80s and early 90s, when the MacOS still had a healthy, wide base of commercial shareware developers, Apple had a well-earned reputation of “incorporating” whatever 3rd party app happened to be selling extremely well for the Macintosh. That was one of the reasons why so many 3rd parties abandoned MacOS for Windows (even though MS did the same thing, there was a wider pool of potential app ideas and customers).

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  26. The owner of this app is a moron. He should have researched a little about patent law before making such idiotic claims. I have filed patents and know what’s involved. I haven’t seen the patent but I believe what the patent attorneys who posted here say because it makes sense. All this lunatic ranting is ridiculous, and the author of this article should be hung out to dry. Is there no responsibility to research what you’re writing about any longer? What is the goal of this site? Is it to misinform the public at large, because I’m finding that’s what they do much of the time. There’s not much accountability on this site – and other blogs too – to report facts instead of half-baked lay theories.

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  27. Developers are at the mercy of a non-communicative and manic 800 pound gorilla child.

    This is precisely why Android will prevail over iPhone. Apple is far too controlling and unpredictable for a long term competitive advantage.

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  28. [...] 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.” [...]

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  29. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think FutureTap has anything to worry about with respect to their app. Patent protection is awarded to the first to “conceive and implement”, not the first to file. They simply need to file.

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  30. Have any of you actually read the patent? Apple isn’t patenting existing apps. Technovia has the story. The summary is that this is purely an illustrative image, not a descriptive one, the patent is a functionality patent, not a design patent, and the patent really has nothing to do with the app the image came from. Obviously Apple made an error here, but the error was using an existing third-party app’s UI as the basis for their illustration instead of coming up with their own.

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  31. @applewatcher: ” if you go back to the late 80s and early 90s … Apple had a well-earned reputation of “incorporating” whatever 3rd party app happened to be selling extremely well for the Macintosh”

    CoughCough* Dan Wood’s “Watson” Cough

    Now just waiting for Winer to come back to the thread and admit he was as completely wrong as one could imagine.

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  32. Hamranhansenhansen Friday, August 6, 2010

    Everybody needs to relax. They did not attempt to patent “Where To” … the app is just running on the device. It’s the same as if you saw a patent application involving an iPod and it said “Telephone / Lady Gaga” on the screen, that would not mean Apple was attempting to patent the song “Telephone” or claim ownership of the song “Telephone”. iPhones run apps and iPods play music and patent application diagrams are supposed to show functioning devices.

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  33. [...] Updated with Clarifications: An Apple App Patent (Pic) That Looks Like an Actual App Selling on the… Updated again at 10 am PST after first update last night at 8.15 pm, PST:: Apple apparently has started filing patents [...] [...]

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  34. With all due respect, what I don’t understand is why is this discussed here and not with Apple.

    – of course, I don’t mean you Om, I mean the developers. Before posting in a blog, tweet or doing almost anything, the developers should contact Apple, get some clarification (or not) and go from there.

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  35. Common_sense Friday, August 6, 2010

    Would it not make sense that some of the apps that are on the app store are developed by the coders at apple. Way to make a story out of nothing to draw hits to your site.

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  36. Fearless Leader Saturday, August 7, 2010

    Relax this is just Apple reloading its arsenal of weapons as it prepares for the mother of all battles against The Google. Apple may use these patents to bog down the Mountain View warriors while the Cupertino Army attacks their flank with a full assault of such magnitude that the tech industry will be shaken to its core. Steve should go Roman on its arch-rival even if that includes burning down the entire town of Mountain View, CA. It must be done by the grace of God…Steve is on a mission and I suggest you kindly stay out of the way. Signs have been posted….Genius At Work. This ain’t Hollyweird this is REAL life unfolding in front of your very eyes. Enjoy it as this is the most fun you can have with your boots on, Mr. Jobs kicking a$$ and taking names !

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  37. I just launched a wiki yesterday that when it picks up steam, is going to throw some sand in Apple’s and other big company’s patent everything gears.

    Please take a look and spread the word. Myideawiki.com

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    1. Posting it here too:

      Go look at http://publicdomainideas.org/ as well.

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  38. Over reaction much! They obviously weren’t trying to patent an app.

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