Regarding Apple including 3rd party app screens in 1st part app patent filings

Apple patent side by side with where to screen shot

Apple has begun filing patent applications for 1st party (i.e. Apple produced) iOS apps that include screen drawings of well known 3rd party (i.e. independently produced by developers for the App Store) apps.

Is Apple trying to steal the hard work and shatter the good will of App Store developers? Is Apple merely showing how App Store apps could hook into future Apple apps/hubs? Is it something in between?

Let's take a look after the break...

[Venomous Porridge, Thanks Dev for the tip!]

Venomous Porridge originally posted the image up to and this commentary:

one of the diagrams in Apple’s patent application for a travel app is a direct copy, down to the text and the positions of the icons, of an existing third-party app that’s been available on the App Store for years.

I can’t see how this is even close to OK.

The image is chilling for developers, especially since it doesn't appear like Apple contacted them to let them know they were using it, and doesn't appear to really explain the context of the usage in the application. That Apple would use an exact rendering of an existing app, when they could easily make their own, far more defensible artwork, is curious. That they show it clearly labeled as "Where To?" is more than curious.

FutureTap, the makers of Where To? said they did not have any deals in place with Apple for the patent and posted the following:

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.

This is where a lot of coverage has ended to date. A few excellent comments have kept it moving forward, however. Macro Arment of Tumblr and Instapaper added:

Is it possible that Where To is being intentionally and innocently used as an example of a related app as an inconsequential portion of the much larger and more complex patented concept that wouldn’t interfere with it?

Brian Ford adds:

The other clue that this isn’t about an underhanded attempt to patent the Where To app is that various pictures showing several completely unrelated app designs are all used to describe this same patent. None of the other drawings are consistent.

Venomous Porridge subsequently updated with a second post

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. But there remains a conflict of interest in Apple acting as the sole steward of the iOS software universe while also filing patents in areas that have long been staked out by third-party developers. If those developers suddenly get cold feet toward submitting innovative apps for fear of their ideas suddenly appearing in Apple’s patent filings, it will be hard to blame them.

Which is pretty much how this reads. Apple is the giant in their forest and sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally they'll step on the far, far smaller villagers who inhabit it. If enough villagers pick up torches and pitchforks and make enough noise, the Apple giant might pause, shrug, say "my bad" and be try to be more careful for a while, but it will always be the giant in their own forest.

It would behoove Apple none the less, especially since developer relations have been tense over the years, to try and create a preemptive strategy in terms of reaching out and assuaging developer fears. If they're going to include Where To? or other app screens in their patents, create a process where that's noted in draft and the developer is contacted and given context.

Ultimately it doesn't look like Apple is being evil here, just inconsiderate.

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Regarding Apple including 3rd party app screens in 1st part app patent filings

13 Comments

There's definitely reason for concern, particularly in light of previous behavior, such as the Delicious Library/iBooks debacle. That said, I think this is "much ado about nothing." Harmless, unintentional, didn't-think-about-that moment. No conspiracy here, just a misstep by an Apple graphic designer that no one else caught. No big story here whatsoever.
Except a dev of an obscure (is that too harsh?) app getting loads of free publicity from the blogosphere.

@Rene
You are disregarding the implications, and missing the point completely. Using WhereTo?'s assets probably was a simple mistake, but it demonstrates pretty conclusively that Apple is looking through the App Store catalog for ideas -- not applications -- they can patent. Why is this evil, not just mistaken? To lay it out simply:
1) WhereTo? releases an app
2) Apple files a broad patent for "SYSTEMS AND METHODS FOR ACCESSING TRAVEL SERVICES USING A PORTABLE ELECTRONIC DEVICE" [ original patent applicatio at http://bit.ly/dgE89l ]
3) WhereTo, by definition, uses such methods, and such services, of their own creation.
4) If the service patent is granted, WhereTo? is in violation of Apple's "patented" technology. (For that matter, so is any travel application on iOS or any other "portable electronic device," but that is a separate argument.)
Apple has, in effect, rifled through their catalog of business partners to look for applications they can expand into broad patents that can be used against those same partners. I am not sure in what universe this should be considered remotely ethical or even acceptable behavior.

@(Copy of) Dev
At the very beginning of the patent process, there is a search for 'prior art'.
If you get your ideas from your In-Box, then there is plenty of proof that 'prior art' already existed.
This patent was filed December 2009. Reviews for the app go back at least as far as August 2009.
The patent should not be granted. But the PTO seems to have a tendency to approve most anything and let people sue and settle it out in the courts where the huge corporation with lawyers on staff tend to have a distinct advantage.
And FutureTap's money quote:
"(If you can recommend a good, affordable patent lawyer, please let us know.) The perspective of an endless legal battle, however, is not very intriguing for a small company like us that aims to throw all its power into improving existing and developing new apps."
And here is FutureTap's response:http://www.futuretap.com/blog/the-patent-case-we-havent-called/

I do think it was rather lazy of Apple to use an existing app layout as an example in their patent application, but the simple truth is that, if you read the actual patent application, the appearance of this screen is totally immaterial to what is being patented.

Forgot to add... It's also worth noting that Where To? is not the only app with a scroll wheel design as a selection UI. Convertbot is just one example that comes easily to mind and is quite popular in the App Store.

@Ryszard: Didn't say they were… But, certainly they couldn't patent a function which can be performed by the Where To? program if the program predates the Apple invention described in the patent app. More interesting is how Apple some how feels they have the right to publish the image in the first place. Obviously, Apple doesn't believe the authors of Where To? have any copyright interest in the image.

@ PatentBoy: No question about Apple's poor judgement. Remember tho that even Where To? couldn't patent this functionality as it's just a nice version of every other 'what's nearby' application out there as prior art. INHO. they should have paid more attention to their copyrights, though.
One of the major aspects of Apple's patent, however, is the "information server" functionality that stores, malls and online retailers would be providing. Perhaps Apple was trying to illustrate that this info would then be available to other apps, such as Where To?, not just to apps developed by Apple.
My reading of the actual application was not so close that I could confidently answer this, but perhaps that's why Apple did not attempt to change Where To?s UI or even its name, i.e., they were just using it as an example.