Apple, Patents and Virtual Spaces

So, Apple has finally got round to trying to sue HTC for using what it claims are it's own patented inventions. No surprise there, except perhaps that it took them this long to get round to it. Personally I think Apple has started to believe it's own hype just a little too much over this - they seem to think they invented the mobile phone itself the way they go on, instead of being a really late entry into the game when hundreds of interesting things had already been tried. Was it really so hard to come up with such a game changing device as the iPhone when so many hundreds and hundreds of other ideas and other devices were already out there to study and understand? I don't think so. Clever the iPhone may be, but 100% original it most certainly was not.

But what about patents more generally, and this constant surge back and forth between companies claiming that everybody else is stealing their ideas? Why in particular in the world of Information & Communication Technologies is this so commonplace, with hundreds of patent cases being exchanged left right and centre? Just take Apple as the latest in a long line - in 2009 Nokia sues Apple, then Apple sues Nokia back, so Apple sues Nokia back, then Kodak sues Apple, now Apple sues HTC. Is there really so much patented tech being stolen ... or is perhaps something else going on? I think it may be ...

The Virtual Space Argument

I'm currently a PhD candidate at my University, where I'm also an ICTs specialist and part of a special web innovation project. My research, though, is actually about the value of ICTs in education, but as part of that I'm developing a way of working with virtual space which tries to understand it's specific unique values as opposed to it's ability to simulate reality. Let me clarify.

Take Second Life, something which most people are now aware of. It's a 3D simulated world, where most of the time you simple wander through a digitally recreated version of this reality. It's a bit odd, and you can certainly do things within it which you can't in this one (like fly, for example) but the vast majority of it simply recreates what exists in this reality. And if you look closer at just about everything in the world of ICTs it's not hard to see the same sort of thing happening across the board, i.e. people recreating this reality within the virtuality - but sometimes it's not as easy to spot as in Second Life. And I think that may be a bit critical when it comes to patents.

I'm going to turn back to Apple here and the iPhone unlocking mechanism, one of the issues over which Apple is suing HTC as far as I understand, as I think this is a good case in point. If you're not familiar with this unlocking thing, it's the ability to put your finger on a part of the screen with what looks like a button, drag it to the other side of the screen, and this action then 'unlocks' the phone, i.e. the screen is now active and can be interacted with. It's bugged me senseless that Apple can think they can patent this, but I've not been able to put my finger on exactly why - until perhaps now. I've thought long and hard and finally it came to me. I do a very similar action to this every day of my life, several times a day in fact, and have been doing it for many, many years now - long before Apple 'patented' it. What am I talking about? I'm actually talking about going to the bathroom. My toilet at home has a sliding bolt. I reach out, slide it one way and it locks, slide it the other way and it unlocks, just like an iPhone.

Yes, you may be screaming, but that's irrelevant because it's something in reality - the iPhone is different. But is it? Why when we construct something in virtual space should a new set of patent rules apply? The digital objects may be different from their physical counterparts in many ways, but the actions that we try and perform on them are very much the same - because these actions are driven not by the technology but by the human. What the iPhone unlocking mechanism does is latch in to a very human action, a very natural action, and one that we have been doing for many, many, millennia. The technology may have reached the point where such an action is feasible in virtual space, i.e. the combination of touch screens, sensitivity, motion detection over the screen, etc., and therefore many companies are starting to take advantage of it and similar capabilities simultaneously, but for some company to try and claim it as their own is to me akin to patenting riding a bike. Don't get me wrong - I think that there are technological innovations that deserve a patent, such as this new touch screen that touches back for example, but to try and patent a human action that is made feasible through this technological invention seems to me simply ludicrous. Perhaps one day we'll invent a technology that allows a totally new form of human action, which would be pretty amazing, but I don't think swiping your finger is quite there yet.

Take another example - the infamous pinch and zoom, probably another on the list I'd expect. I was wondering about this one as well, and was thinking of a real world example. Imagine of a piece of paper lying on a table. If you put two fingers down on the paper about 2 inches apart, hold down the paper with these fingers and then pinch the two together, what happens? The paper rises towards you. Pull them apart, and the paper folds back down. Now this isn't quite as directly applicable of course, because pinch and zoom actually works the other way around (pinching zooms out, not in), but the basic principle remains the same. What I think we're latching into here is actually a very physical reaction of objects when we squeeze them - in a 3 dimensional space such as this reality when we apply force across a plane, the object reacts in the opposite fashion to the plane on which the force is applied. A force applied in the Z plane, for example, will create motion in the X/Y plane. Something like pinch and zoom is simply taking this very real property and transposing it to a simulated virtuality. Personally I don't think that's patentable - it's been around for a pretty long time after all. It's simply a transposition from this reality to the virtual world.

I'm convinced that issues like this is part of the reason we are so deluged with patents in the world of ICTs, and that the good stuff is getting caught up with what it many ways is the mundane. I think it's great that people are looking at UI design  and applying how we work in this world to the virtual world, but I disagree that what I'm seeing are real inventions. I think the truth is we're actually discovering a brand new space to occupy, virtual space, and with every turn of the technology we're exploring a little more of how we can project who and what we are from this reality into this new virtuality. If we continue to try and patent every step in the virtual world in this way, we are crippling humanities progress as a whole, forcing ourselves to stumble into the future in fits and starts when we could be striding ahead together.

A Call for Sanity

Personally I'd like to make the call to those deciding on patents worldwide to question whether or not these new patents that are being presented to them really are innovations that need protecting, or whether in actual fact they already exist in a real world counterpart. Just take the time to ask yourself is this truly a new invention, or is it just that the development of the overarching virtual space has reached a point where an existing invention is now possible within the virtual world. By doing so we'll not only save billions in fees from all these court cases, but also drastically improve the ability for companies to innovate and develop new virtual products and services without fear - and just possibly highlight those real innovations which really do bring out the best in the new virtuality we're only now just discovering.

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