Updated with Clarifications: An Apple App Patent (Pic) That Looks Like an Actual App Selling on the App Store

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.

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