Absurd Patent of the Day

by on June 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm in Economics, Law | Permalink

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…Apple has been awarded a patent on wedge-shaped computers. Once again it is difficult to see why this sort of competition-stifling government-enforced monopoly would be beneficial to the overall cause of innovation. It’s absolutely true that the record should reflect the fact that Apple made wedge-shaped computers popular and the new wave of Ultrabooks are slightly lame imitators. But we progress as a society because of imitators! People come up with good ideas and then those ideas spread.

Copied from Matt Yglesias who I take it will not mind that I am helping to spread good ideas.

Marc Roston June 8, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Come on, this it TOTALLY unfair criticism! They are true innovators!! Apple has been making wedge shaped computers since before my Apple ][+.

Maybe they should go all out, and simply patent “electronic device as fashion accessory”?

Manoj June 8, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Even a Sony viao of 2004 make was wedge shaped. Apple’s design is an evolution of that. The problem, however, is that Apple has a tendency of going after rivals for such frivolous things.

Sigivald June 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm

It’s a design patent.

That’s what design patents do; patent an distinctive and novel ornamental design, ala the Coke Bottle.

(Contra the Verge, “ultrabooks” need only beware if they’re simple clones of the MBA’s distinctive wedge. Not if they’re just “really thin” or “made of aluminum” or the like.

We do, indeed, progress because imitators reduce costs … and they can do so after the patent expires, or by imitating the utility aspect of the MBA [small, light, SSD] rather than its aesthetic.

I am sure there exists someone, somewhere who both assured us that “Ultrabooks aren’t just copies of the MBA” and is also furious about this patent because it prevents them from doing so without paying Apple. I mock that person.)

Ray Lopez June 8, 2012 at 6:28 pm

+1 good spot. No further comments necessary, pro or con, unless you are against trademarks and trade dress. As for “good ideas” let the marketplace decide: if the patent is no good it will never be litigated and die a quiet death. Last I checked the Patent Office has a drawer full of “perpetual motion machine” patents.

Douglas Knight June 8, 2012 at 8:56 pm

Since I’m in favor of trademark, I guess I have to be in favor of trade dress. But design patents? They’re completely different from utility patents, but they also seem pretty different from trade dress.

Adrian Ratnapala June 9, 2012 at 12:29 am

Giving “Ridiculous patent” the name “Design patent” doesn’t help (except to show that Design==Ridiculous is becoming become a standard part of the language). If they want a trademark, they should have a trademark.

The whole point of patents is that they are broader, that they can catch people who are doing something similar and not the same. But on the other hand patents are supposed to reward some substantial advance in human ingenuity, I don’t see how making a computer wedge shaped makes the grade.


As for “good ideas” let the marketplace decide: if the patent is no good it will never be litigated and die a quiet death.

What?


Last I checked the Patent Office has a drawer full of “perpetual motion machine” patents.

I think they have a skipful of rejected ones.

Bill June 8, 2012 at 11:36 pm

+1.

Anyone ever see Golden Arches and think hamburger?

Design patents and trade dress have protection.

Willitts June 9, 2012 at 1:13 am

If the computer were shaped like an apple, I might agree.

The “wedge” shape is purely functional. Almost every modern laptop and every modern keyboard is higher in the back than the front to accommodate typing. I’m looking down now at a keyboard on a five year old laptop that is slanted down toward me, and there ain’t no apple on the back of the screen.

dan1111 June 9, 2012 at 4:41 am

If there is a laptop predating Apple that truly has this wedge shape, I have not seen it. Most are closer to an even thickness than they are to a wedge and have only a slight angle.

I do think the patent situation has gotten ridiculous, but I am not completely sold on this as an example of that. This is a design patent, and it seems that it really is a distinctive design. It is not just the obvious way everyone would do it; significant engineering work was required to relocate all of the components in order to create this shape.

dan1111 June 9, 2012 at 4:46 am

p.s. I am not an Apple fan.

andy June 9, 2012 at 5:08 am

significant engineering work was required to relocate all of the components in order to create this shape.

Nope. And this is a design patent, therefore engineering work is irrelevant.

dan1111 June 9, 2012 at 5:34 am

“Nope”

In order to make the front that thin, they would have had to change the location of some components, compared to most laptops. A number of technical decisions they made, such as permanently soldering the RAM to the board and using a custom-engineered, smaller version of the core 2 duo processor, were likely related to making everything fit in this package.

“this is a design patent, therefore engineering work is irrelevant.”

I understand what the design patent covers. My point was that this shape was a design choice from the beginning, not just what you get when you put everything together in the most obvious way.

Owen Rubin June 9, 2012 at 2:18 pm

I am staring at a stack of older Apple laptops, and they are NOT wedge shaped. They were uniform thickness front to back. The first wedge shaped laptop I ever saw was the early, VERY THIN Sony Viao in 2000n(P3 at 750 MHz). What portable, wedge shaped PowerBook did Apple have at that time? I believe that was the black G3 era, the Pizmo and Wallstreet PowerBooks, and they were not wedge shaped. I am holding one right now.

Rahul June 9, 2012 at 12:07 am

Fine. Then let’s argue for reducing the duration of a design patent. That way imitators can imitate them earlier.

Russell June 10, 2012 at 11:57 am

Let’s argue for the return of the Pismo! My favorite all time laptop.
http://media.treehugger.com/assets/images/2011/10/Powerbook_g3_pismo.jpg

Michael F. Martin June 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Isn’t the original Kindle prior art?!

Michael F. Martin June 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm

It’s a design patent. Very limited scope.

Nigel June 8, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Actually, the scope of this patent appears to be quite broad.
Any substantially similar (ie wedge shaped) notebook device is likely to infringe – though of course quite what ‘substantially similar’ means in this case is also likely to be litigated.

Willitts June 8, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Utterly ridiculous! They have patented a product SHAPE, not a distinctive design that amounts to a product recognition feature. The wedge shape is a FUNCTIONAL design feature which is why keyboards have little legs to tilt them up in the back.

It’s like patenting the angle of the back of a chair relative to its seat. Geez, why didn’t someone patent the rectangular screen shape?

Hell, why doesn’t somebody patent a glove, or a shoe or even a PAIR of shoes.

Tomorrow I patent a ball that is oblong with somewhat pointy ends, sorta like a football…no, exactly like a football.

The Disney corporation should sue Apple over their logo. I saw it first in Snow White.

dan1111 June 9, 2012 at 4:44 am

Well, obviously all that stuff already exists, so it can’t be patented now. If you invent a chair that is shaped differently from all previous chairs, however, I’m pretty sure you will be able to get a design patent for it.

Brent Royal-Gordon June 9, 2012 at 6:59 am

And that’s why there have been hundreds of models of wedge-shaped laptops from dozens of companies before the 2010 MacBook Air.

Oh, wait…

TallDave June 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Is it too late to patent the process of filing absurd patents?

Chris M June 9, 2012 at 2:48 am
TallDave June 8, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Also, in other good news for Apple, it turns out Steve Jobs isn’t dead, they were just holding him wrong.

Adrian Ratnapala June 9, 2012 at 12:34 am

+1.

Ray June 8, 2012 at 5:50 pm

If the libertarians can agree that this patent is ridiculous, would they agree to us taxing the profits from it – considering that they are largely illegitimate to begin with.

(Yes, IP reform would be better but I suggest the above as an interim solution)

And hey, the real economists among you who love to talk externalities – by abusing IP Apple IS creating an externality, so we really should tax it (much like tobacco)!

Wimivo June 8, 2012 at 5:56 pm

If the libertarians can agree that this patent is ridiculous, would they agree to us taxing the profits from it – considering that they are largely illegitimate to begin with.

*face palm*

TallDave June 8, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Also, since we’re against the death penalty, we should tax funerals as well.

Wimivo June 8, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Or turning the AC on in winter because the furnace is set too high.

Ray June 8, 2012 at 10:33 pm

Bad analogy – I am not saying tax ALL of Apple’s profits – just those made illegitimately from IP abuse.

And really what about this is not an externality?

Snake Plissken June 8, 2012 at 10:54 pm

You are a shit-for-brains.

Rahul June 9, 2012 at 12:11 am

So we can add a surcharge to the funerals of criminals?

TallDave June 9, 2012 at 12:33 am

No, no, only if they’re wrongly convicted.

So first, we wrongly convict them, then we execute them, then we tax them. That’ll teach the state to execute people!

Paul Zrimsek June 9, 2012 at 9:58 am

Why is having the government go on abetting IP abuse, but taxing the proceeds, a better solution than having the government stop abetting IP abuse?

Ken Rhodes June 11, 2012 at 6:40 am

Why? Because it’s a way of raising badly-needed revenue from folks who richly deserve to be taxed.

mw June 8, 2012 at 6:09 pm

‘it is difficult to see why this sort of competition-stifling government-enforced monopoly would be beneficial to the overall cause of innovation.’

ooh ooh i know! because this is *APPLE* which is totally cool unlike some evil unhip corporation like Microsoft?

Mary June 8, 2012 at 6:18 pm

You and Dell and HP and whoever else copies Apple on a fairly regular basis, seem to think that these folks in Cupertine are running a non for profit operation to provide the rest of the lazyass world of tech with free methods to enrich themselves without any leg work to show for it. Why do you defend the dumb who are incapable of coming up with anything even remotely different from what Apple does? Is that how you make your living?

Willitts June 8, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Too bad Quiznos didn’t patent the TOASTED sub so Subway wouldn’t steal their idea.

Apple might be on the cutting edge of fad and fashion, but not on product specs. They are usually the LAST movers in better displays, more memory, higher processing speeds and, oh yeah, Flash support. Their computers and phones are overpriced and underequipped. Their flaws are underreported. Spend an hour in an AT&T store and you’ll probably see a half dozen people with shattered iPhone screens.

Their competitive advantage is solidified with their proprietary operating system, hardware built to suit it, and a cult like fan base. They should stick with that business model instead of adopted Kodak’s profit model of patent infringement revenue.

Toshiba developed an ultra lightweight laptop long before Apple. The Air wasn’t the first computer to use flash memory. Only recently did the Macbooks add backlit keyboards. Samsung makes major components for the iPad.

The next iPhone will have what? A bigger screen you say? Whose idea was that?

Don’t confuse religious fervor for innovation. Steve Jobs could have patented his farts and sold them to fanboyz.

Mary June 8, 2012 at 8:41 pm

No no no, this has nothing to do with religion! At all. If Apple is so frivolous and Toshiba is so great and google worked on Android before the iPhone and all the rest of this argument, how come everything from hardware to software looks almost exactly like Apple’s ? Explain to me if every other company and it’s brother are greater how come nobody buys their stuff. Who cares about specs. Everyone’s favorite hobby is to brag about how many cores are in their phone’s processors. When in fact it does not matter one bit. Nokia has a single core in their phone which works pretty well. This is a nonsical path that Apple was incredibly wise not to travel. I am not a tech geek, but I have a very busy professional and personal life and I want electronics that I can do things with not do things to all day long. Apple understands this and gives people what they need not what it as a company can brag about. And people buy what works. If all these other products were more useful, they would have been more popular , so enough with the BS about specs.

Willitts June 9, 2012 at 1:38 am

Oh please! The Cult of Apple is so apparent I’m waiting for them to declare a religious holiday, and your ignorant devotion is more evidence of brainwashing.

Where do you get off saying that “nobody buys their stuff”? Apple took over the top spot of mobile computer sales last year IF AND ONLY IF you count iPads. 15 million of their 20 million mobile devices sold were iPads.

HP, Dell, Acer and Lenovo EACH sold more laptops than Apple.

In 2011, when the iPhone 4 and 4S made their big debuts on other networks and the iPhone 3 was still selling, Apple sold 89 million phones. Nokia sold 422 million phones and Samsung sold 315 million phones that year.

I’m not putting down Apple for quality or aesthetics, but there is no question they are over-priced because of the slobbering love affair that people like you have with anything sporting their logo. Frankly, the only two things I have against Apple are 1) their price and 2) PEOPLE LIKE YOU.

cthulhu June 9, 2012 at 3:30 am

You don’t have a life, do you?

Mary June 9, 2012 at 8:51 am

I can imagine you really hating people like me who uncover your belony like counting Apple’s 89 mil smart phones with Samsung’s and Nokia’s 315 feature phone sales. Nice! Apple’s products are worth their price because people can use them for many years. They don’t become obsolete as fast as other products. All their IOS gadgets for example, get the most recent updates as soon as they are available. So I expect my first gen iPad that I got in 2010 to get the IOS6 whenever it is available. Android phones running the latest version of Android that came out 7 months ago : 7%. The rest? Running the 2009 versions of software. Why? Because the newer version is incompatible with most hardware? I.e obsolete already. Most of these hardware PC makers are selling to enterprise where people are forced to use windows based systems, not choosing based on quality or appeal. But the interesting part is why are they imitating Apple if their business is thriving? That’s what I want to know. You are deluding your self by saying ignorant devotion. Devotionis not even the right or honest description here. And status and all that have nothing nothing to do with why people stick with Apple. Loyalty yes. getting stuff that is dependable and adaptable that is why people stick with Apple. And my own experience is that they treat me right. I have been using Apple computers since 2002. No one in customer service or the genus bar every made me feel stupid when I come with problems or needing help setting up stuff. You know this counts! And as for the larger phone bit, they have to do it to accommodate a battery large enough to support 4G LTE in addition to the high resolution display on the iPhone.

Bro June 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Holy fuck @Mary you are such a goddamn tool.

Mary June 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm

@Bro right back at ya!

Willitts June 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm

No kidding Bro. I thought it was the Apple Sabbath Day and was ready to say, “Amen.”

Mary June 9, 2012 at 8:06 pm

Wow. You guys are so lame. Anything objective to respond with? Yep didn’t think so.

TWB June 8, 2012 at 7:17 pm

What would the world be like if one of the early automakers patented the steering wheel and made everyone else come up with a different way of controlling the car?

dan1111 June 9, 2012 at 5:00 am

The steering wheel seems mundane now, but it was a true innovation in 1894. It is hard to see why this would not be patentable, unless you believe their should be no patents for anything.

If that had happened, someone would have made money on licensing and/or a lot of cars would have continued to use tillers until the patent expired in the early 1900′s. Not that big of a deal. It would have expired around the time cars became a mass-market product.

byomtov June 10, 2012 at 10:47 pm

The steering wheel seems mundane now, but it was a true innovation in 1894.

True innovation, my a**.

Ships were steered with wheels (helms) for centuries before 1894.

Matt June 8, 2012 at 7:57 pm

I fail to see how this passes the obviousness test that patents are supposed to face before baing passed. For that matter I find it hard to believe that there isn’t any sort of prior art for a laptop that is thicker in the rear than it is in the front.

Sadly though, this sort of thing is par for the course for the sad, broken joke that the patent system has become. It would be funny if it wasnt such a massive waste of resources and huge impediment to a free and competitive market.

Ironman June 8, 2012 at 7:58 pm

Design patent or not, the concept presented is far too generic. This is the sort of thing that’s simply a USPTO-approved green light for Apple’s IP lawyers to harass anybody producing any products that are even remotely similar in *any* way to the design patent.

Perhaps if someone set this patented invention up outside Apple’s IP HQ every time they tried pulling stuff like this, they might get a clue….

Dan Weber June 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Design patents are much more vulnerable to prior art than utility patents. Even appearing in fiction counts. You couldn’t get a design patent for the 3D gloves from Minority Report because the movie itself counts as prior art.

byomtov June 8, 2012 at 8:24 pm

I don’t understand why people are blaming Apple rather than the Patent Office.

If the government announced that economics professors whose last names start with “T” can fill out a form and get a $10,000 check I’d expect Alex to do it. Would you criticize him?

Dick Nozzle June 8, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Hell yeah, I would. You wouldn’t? Gee, I wonder why not.

Someone needs a lesson in cause and effect.

byomtov June 9, 2012 at 10:39 am

So you don’t take advantage of tax deductions you’re entitled to, if you think they are unwise policy?

And what does cause and effect have to do with it?

Rahul June 9, 2012 at 12:15 am

Is there glory in exploiting every loophole? Just because it is legal need not mean it is ethical.

byomtov June 9, 2012 at 10:40 am

I didn’t say it was a glorious thing to do.

Adrian Ratnapala June 9, 2012 at 12:47 am

I blame the patent office.

Ken Rhodes June 11, 2012 at 7:00 am

Ohmigosh! Think of the partisan squabbling that would ensue.

Tyler would start a lobbying effort to extend the benefit to economics professors whose first name begins with “T.” Then other departments would be up in arms, lobbying to include their “T” professors in the bounty.

But that would only be the beginning. Soon other letters would be lobbying to be included. And other professions. Eventually, there would also be lobbying to include non-professionals, and then unemployed. Everybody would want a piece of the pie.

Oh, waitaminit! That’s pretty much what we have now.

Nevermind.

Pensans June 8, 2012 at 8:27 pm

The design patent does not extend to the functional though all the examples attempting to make this patent seem absurd rely on this idea. It limits the use of a new ornamental feature by others only to the extent that the use is so similar to the patented design that customers would be deceived into buying the infringing product believing it to be the patented design. In making this determination, the similarities of design that arise simply from common function considerations have to be dispensed with.

There is nothing prima facie absurd about this patent, though there is about the confused outrage it is evoking.

patar June 8, 2012 at 11:00 pm

The problem is that this is obvious in light of all the previous wedge shaped items and that Apple now can haul someone into court.

Willitts June 9, 2012 at 1:45 am

It most certainly is functional.

Place a level perpendicular to a sample of 10 different laptop keyboards and see how many centered bubbles you get. Oh, and don’t forget to lower the two folding legs in the back if they have one.

Bong Hits for Hitler June 8, 2012 at 10:51 pm

Who gives a fuck about Matt Yglesias?

Ranjit Suresh June 9, 2012 at 11:43 am

Agreed. The guy has benefited from double-affirmative action by virtue of his Latin-sounding last name.

mulp June 8, 2012 at 11:36 pm

Can we kill off the idea that inventions discovered on government grants should be patented to prevent any old taxpayer from using the inventions they helped pay for??

DK June 9, 2012 at 12:01 am

Would be nice. Would definitely kill most patents. Certainly around 95% in biotech.

TallDave June 9, 2012 at 12:48 am

The federal government actually owns more patents that anyone else.

http://www.tms.org/pubs/journals/JOM/matters/matters-9004.html

The allocation of patent rights between the government and its employees is covered by Executive Order 10096. Unlike private industry, government employees do not have employment contracts. The order has been in effect since 1950 and was created to provide a uniform method of allocating patent rights between the agencies and their employees. Most of the patents owned by the government are obtained under the provisions of this order. The main section of the executive order provides that the government shall obtain all rights to any invention made by an employee if any one of the following conditions applies: the invention is made during working hours; the invention is made using either government facilities, equipment, etc., or is made with the help of another government employee who is on official duty; or the invention relates to the official duties of the inventor.

In the 1980s, someone noticed that government was really, really bad at capitalism, possibly because Communism was collapsing around that time. So they made it easier for organizations to get patent rights when using government funding.

You can either let private business temporarily make money off gov’t-funded research (which is more or less the point of gov’t funding of research), you can have the gov’t attempt to productize patents itself using the same skill with which it runs the Post Office and invests in Solyndra, or you can have gov’t not fund research because someone might make money off of it.

affenkopf June 9, 2012 at 3:27 am

This patent was used in Germany to keep Samsung tablets off the market. Samsung had do sharpen the edges of their tablet.

Mary June 9, 2012 at 11:44 am

OMG Samsung had to actually do some work on their products. Oh poor Samsung!

TallDave June 9, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Deadweight losses make us all poorer.

Jan June 9, 2012 at 9:15 am

Terrifying. Affront to to liberty.

Kevin June 9, 2012 at 4:28 pm

A perspective on Apple’s “design” patents: Apple Never Designed the iPad – They Undesigned it

You can trademark design, but not simplicity.

Bah June 9, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Are those patents really useful for the economy?

I mean, would Apple really be less likely to invent a wedge-shaped laptop if there was not patent protection for it?

Surely the fact that they’ll sell more stuff due to their better design (assuming it’s indeed better) during the 6-12 months that it will take for someone else to bring the same design to market is enough incentive given the insignificant R&D costs, no?

Mike Green June 9, 2012 at 7:37 pm

I guess one of the advantages of dealing with computers since the late 70′s (and i’m under-50) is knowing their history. Anyone who thinks the “wedge” is unique should google the Sinclair ZX-81 (circa 1981). Beats the MBA by a few years.

There a slew of other systems that are convincingly prior-art on all of “Apple’s” claims.

David Eggers June 27, 2012 at 11:10 am

Funny, replace “Apple” with “Motorola” and I bet many opinions here would flip 180°. Seriously though, patents like this hurt everyone. In the end, Apple will meet with other companies and make an agreement that lets them share each other’s trivial patents. New companies without an extensive patent portfolio won’t have the chance to enter the market. The big guys use patents like these to keep them out through lawsuits.

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