The world is now so litigious that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone tried to sue me for having the same name or lack of hair. Apple’s laudable record of innovation and daring design has made it both the victim and pursuer of million-dollar claims for some years now. In 1988 it tried to sue Microsoft over the similarity between Windows and the Mac OS, forgetting that its then CEO John Sculley had signed an agreement with Bill Gates in 1985 that allowed Microsoft to use “derivative works” of the Mac in perpetuity.
Since those crazy days, Apple’s lawyers have been kept busy protecting its many technological patents and defending itself against claims that it used elements of others. Anything that makes money is certain to excite the legal profession. So after several iMac courtroom battles and at the same time as the Apple/Beatles gavel-banger, the latest donning of wigs and gowns concerns the ubiquitous iPod. Andreas Pavel, who came up with idea of the personal stereo, is threatening to sue Apple over its digital-music player. In 1978 he filed a patent on the concept of a “Stereobelt”, where a small portable music player could be clipped to a belt or handbag, and produce sound to be played back through headphones.
Despite the fact that none of Pavel’s prototypes ever reached market, two years after he patented the idea Sony unveiled the Walkman portable cassette player. Pavel used legal aid against Sony in the UK courts, but lost both cases.
Presumably bored with dealing with Mr Pavel for the past 25 years, Sony has recently offered several million euros to settle the outstanding disputes. As a result of this payout, Pavel can now afford to sue Apple over the iPod. Sadly for him he’s too late, as patents have a shelf-life of 20 years; Pavel’s Stereobelt patent was filed in 1978, 23 years before Apple introduced the iPod.
A few years back, British Telecom unsuccessfully tried to sue the whole world for daring to use hyperlinks in Web pages. BT had claimed ownership of the patent for the technology that connects Web data using links. The case, which was thrown out by US federal courts, was linked to BT’s US patent 4,873,662 filed in 1976 and granted in 1989, provided the company with the rights to hyperlinking.
Apple has recently filed a patent application about translucent windows that adjust in opacity depending on user input. Although Microsoft makes use of such a feature – made possible by OS X’s Quartz imaging engine – in Office 2004 apps, the focus of Apple’s protectionism is Windows rather than Mac programs.
Filing your ‘inventions’ at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov) is pretty easy – you can do it over the Web – and cheap at around $1,000. If Mr Pavel can make a few million by dreaming up his Stereobelt, maybe we should all have a go – in the hope that Sony, Apple or Microsoft later have the same idea, and actually do something about it other than file a few patents.
To be patentable, an invention has to pass two vital tests: it must be original; and it must not be obvious. So how about a glove-like device that you can use to type anywhere without using a keyboard? Giving it a pithy name might help, so we’ll call it the KeyMitt. The KeyMittMouse would be an accessory that makes your index finger into a surrogate cursor-mover. Press harder to work it as a scroll-wheel. Pick your nose to right-click, and scratch your arse to backup. The possibilities – and therefore legal implications – are endless.
In case someone else has already patented this maybe too obvious device, a scatter-gun approach is called for: a keyboard substitute that is powered by your eyelashes or nasal hair; a virtual optical mouse that shines from the forehead; a microphone that slips onto the end of a tongue or hangs from your tonsils; speakers shaped like ears to remind you what those things that stand either side of your computer actually do; a telephone under the keyboard’s Number Pad; or, a USB port that reminds you to backup at the end of the day.
I might also patent my idea for an operating system that can be customized to switch off functions you really don’t need. If you know you’ll be using just Photoshop and Entourage for the next couple of hours or rest of the day, you don’t need your OS to worry about an imminent iChat or blast of iTunes. By paring down the OS to its bare essentials, it’s bound to be much faster doing just a few things rather than being able to do many. Although now not the safest example I could use, the Space Shuttle’s electronic brain is based on computers from the 1970s – because it just does a few things, it doesn’t need to be anything like as powerful as an LC II. The box of circuits and switches that made up the Apollo Guidance Computer had less horsepower than a pocket calculator – yet it controlled the direction of thrust of the service propulsion engine. The recent US Mars Rover’s 20MHz processor works on 128MB of RAM. So, imagine a dual-2.5GHz Power Mac G5 running a version of OS X that only worried about six Photoshop filters and checked for email every half an hour. You’d finish work before your colleagues had even had their second cup of coffee.
Other OS functions could be switched back on when you want to play Halo or make an iMovie. Most electronic devices today do too much, and slow us down every minute of the day. I was recently caught behind someone at a cash machine. I stood there getting ever closer to my grave as she ordered mini statements and receipts. For all I knew, she was also organizing a buy-to-let, all-in-one smart mortgage and requesting competitive quotes on car and motor insurance, while I waited to take £20 out. A cash-point that only dispensed cash would save me hours over the course of a couple of months. It would be as useful as a Post Office counter that sold only stamps rather than paying out benefits, accepting utility bills, and organizing passports. So I’ll be patenting my EasyEditOS before Apple gets the idea. But I’ll happily waive my rights to the idea for a few million, Steve.
Registering obvious Web addresses used to be the easy way to tech riches. But just as there are no .com addresses left that don’t read like Hungarian menus or aren’t broken up by several hyphens, there’s probably not many ideas that aren’t already patented – even the eyelash idea I had earlier is probably sitting in a file somewhere.
We’ll have to be a lot more imaginative than Mr Pavel and his Stereobelt if we’re to win the patent lottery, but if you’re prepared to pay a long-waiting game, it makes more sense than a pension these days. MW