Tabbed Windows: Patented!

by on April 24, 2007 · 34 comments

You’ll be shocked to hear that yet another patent trolling company has sued a major technology company over a vague software patent. Ars has the scoop. In this case, the plaintiff is “IP Innovation, LLC,” the defendant is Apple, and the patent in queston is this one, covering “User interface with multiple workspaces for sharing display system objects.”

I’ve gotten too busy to do a full “software patent of the week” writeup every week, but this certainly looks like it would be a juicy one. It’s got all the elements that make software patents so pernicious: it’s extremely vague, making it impossible for other software companies to be sure whether their products infringe on it. It’s extremely broad, apparently covering a variety of general characteristics of windowing systems. As the Ars article indicates, there’s likely to be prior art. Finally, it’s extremely wordy, with 62 loquacious claims and dozens of pages describing this “technology” in excruciating detail.

I’ve ranted about all of those problems before, so let me just make a brief policy observation: would anyone seriously claim that granting legal monopolies on the general characteristics of windowing systems is either necessary or helpful to the progress of the software industry? Microsoft and Apple spent the late 1980s and early 1990s battling it out for dominance of desktop computing, introducing numerous important innovations in GUI design. It’s hard to imagine Apple saying “Gosh, I just thought of a great new feature to add to Mac OS System 7, but it will cost a million dollars to develop it and Microsoft will just copy it in Windows 95. So why bother?” Apple and Microsoft copied each other promiscuously (well, OK, Microsoft mostly copied Apple) and consumers benefitted from it. Apple certainly would have liked to prevent Microsoft from copying their innovations (and in fact, they tried very hard to do so) but they ultimately were not able to do so. Does anyone think that consumers would be better off today if the courts had prohibited Microsoft from imitating Apple’s UI innovations?

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