That's too bad. If it weren't for Apple bringing this to their mobile web browsers (and other phone manufacturers copying the feature), we'd still be tapping a magnifying glass icon that opens up a menu with controls to zoom in and out.
That's like saying you can't use drop-down menus on the web, because one site did it first. I'm not saying in other cases that it might not have taken longer for the others to figure it out (months, years?). I'm saying that they shouldn't be able to patent something as easy to implement as that for 17 years, or whatever the patent age is.
Maybe if the patent system made a bit more sense, we wouldn't be so much against all software patents. It reminds me of the argument that people shouldn't be yelling "SOPA" everytime a slightly dangerous law appears, because in the end the whole protest thing loses its effectiveness. In the same way Apple and others shouldn't file for a "patent" everytime they work for a few hours on something. But the system shouldn't allow these type of patents in the first place, otherwise there will be companies to take advantage of it.
You're the one misunderstanding.
A big company don't take any risk to file a patent, it's a few thousand of dollars and a few lawyer hours, and that's chump change for them. And that's a great sum for the small guy.
That's why you see companies like IBM, Samsung, Microsft and Apple patenting the hell out of everything. It's actually a great defense move (so, yeah, it's the inverse of risk) and sometimes take no research (just lawyers and money).
There are some patents that USPTO keeps rejecting from Apple, and Apple just changes the wording and try again (no small guy can afford that) until they finally get the patent. Such a wonderfully new researched and risky idea shouldn't take more than one try on the USPTO, don't you think?
Obviously I'm not referring to the process of handing in a patent application when I talk about risk. I'm referring to the process of inventing the invention that's patented, which presumably takes a lot of time and money in R&D.
Patents are not rewards for invention. They are compensation for willingly disclosing what would otherwise remain trade secrets. That's why the application has to describe the invention in enough detail for others to implement it (not merely recognize it) and why it must have been kept secret until the examiner's decision.
The fact that simple ideas can be truly novel inventions, worthy of protection, is the main problem with our patent system at this point. Not everything that is simple is an invention - and that means the only way you can tell if something is worthy of protection is to have some deep domain knowledge. The one thing our patent examiners do not have.
This is a common fallacy when it comes to inventions.
I have a Ph.D. in an engineering field, so I'm not easily impressed. That said, the inventions which are truly revolutionary are the ones where as soon as someone describes it you think "man, that makes perfect sense".
Yes, it makes perfect sense because it's the correct solution. That doesn't make it obvious before someone came along and spelled it out, nor guarantee that someone else would have invented it earlier.
There are some types of inventions "whose time has come". These will get invented at around a particular time by virtue of the supporting technology existing. Take the brightness control of LEDs using PWM and color mixing of different LED colors to make color changing LED lighting. Philips actually has a patent on this, from 1999. It was an idea whose time had come, and others came up with it independently many times since and frankly probably quite a few times before. But it was inevitable. I think it was a bad patent because it was obvious even in 1999 that you could use PWM, common already, to vary power through a LED to control brightness. It was also obvious in 1999 that you could mix two different primary colors together to form a mixed color. Patents aren't supposed to be awarded by simply taking two already obvious things and adding them together (or at least so says my patent attorney, who is perhaps too ethical about what she'll let me put into an application). But besides all that, I would argue that any "idea whose time has come" is probably also inherently obvious to someone skilled in the art at the time of interest.
On the other hand, there are some ideas which are not limited by any technology; they are limited by the creativity of humans. Take for instance the liquid metal battery that my employer works on. You float a molten anode metal on a slightly denser molten salt electrolyte on a slightly denser molten cathode metal, and bam, super high energy density, super high power density, low cost, long life-time battery. This is, in my opinion, an actual invention. There was nothing stopping someone from coming up with it earlier... but no one did. Why? Because it was non-obvious. It's still simple, conceptually at least.
As far as pinching to zoom? Honestly, I think it's somewhere between these things. Just because it's intuitive doesn't mean it's obvious. It's clearly more of a jump from a zoom button to a multitouch gesture than the jump from "LEDs can have variable brightness and different colors" to "LEDs can be mixed to make color changing lights". But it's also probably an idea whose time had come, by virtue of multitouch starting to exist. But I doubt any of that had anything to do with why it was invalidated; my guess would be that it was invalidated because of sufficient prior art to render it an obvious extension of existing technology.
You don't need to guess; if you read the patent that invalidates most of Apple's claims, you'll see a picture of a man doing a very similar movement of pinch to zoom ('though with a finger from each hand, since the screen depicted is much bigger).
> truly revolutionary are the ones where as soon as someone describes it you think "man, that makes perfect sense".
the purpose of the patent is to prevent secrets from being lost due to the fear of competitors stealing it. Say you have a formula, or a special method of manufacturing a widget. You tell no one, and so stay in business because the widget is useful.
However, in the long run, such behavour is bad for society as a whole. Patents encourage these "secrets" to be revealed, for the price of an enforced monopoly.
If, however, a "secret" method that's being employed is readily and easily discerned by a skilled practistioner in the field, then it deserves no patents. Pinch to zoom is one such "invention" - the mere fact of describing it to somebody means they can implement it.
Amazon's one click buy is also another example.
In other words, if the workings of the invention is easily discernable in such a way that a skilled practictioner could replicate it without knowing what would've been written in the patent, then it deserves no patents.
The argument you portray is sufficiently complicated that's it's hard to even begin... not that arguing is really the purpose. Yes, that is the purpose of a patent philosophically, for sure. It's hard to apply a philosophical test to a legal case though =)
IIRC, early touch screens were resistive, rather than capacitive, which didn't support multi-touch. without multitouch, no pinch. the interface has existed in movies for a long time and it just took bringing down the cost of capacitive touch screens. If Apple chooses, their size and market following allow them to bring tech to the consumer faster. That's why they got pinch to zoom first, not because of clever innovation.
It's a nice theory, but resistive supports multi-touch just fine. (Although I'm not sure that any shipping products back then actually supported it - but it's certainly possible to do it with resistive.)
But we're not talking about a patent on multi-touch, we're talking about pinch-to-zoom. I'm sure its very difficult to make a good multi-touch screen, especially one small, efficient, and precise enough to use on a smartphone. But once you have good a good multi-touch screen, it doesn't seem that hard to implement a pinch gesture. Every single demo of a multi-touch interface I've ever seen (even from before 2007) has had some sort of pinch-to-zoom gesture, it seems to be one of the first things everyone thinks of doing once you've got the capability in the hardware.
Yes, ease of implementation is the wrong way to evaluate patents.
However, I don't see the real benefit of apple (or others) having patents like this. If they could not patent it, I think they would have included it in their product anyway. It's a cool feature. They got a head start. That's the value of creating something new--a head start. Things move too fast for there to be any real benefit to the general good by granting monopolies for 17 years. People will still create things because you can make a lot of money with a head start, particularly if you're the type of person/company that can maintain that lead by continuing to build great products without resorting to monopoly tactics.
The dropdown menu is a good example where I don't see much difference between a dropdown menu and pinch to zoom.