What has gotten into the bloodstream of interface designers, that they think they should or could patent their user interface design elements? Someone on the Peer to Patent project has let me know about a patent application that tries to get a monopoly on a trivial tagging mechanism similar to what millions of people use on blogs, social networks, and media sharing sites.
This application, titled User-created metadata for managing interface resources on a user interface, is easier to read than most patent applications. The public has 39 days left to comment; if you can turn up prior art you should join up and submit it.
I just wish the figures in the application were printed right side up (most of them are sideways). Luckily, most of them are irrelevant. Ten of the fourteen figures show crude user interfaces--a sign that this application is not about a machine or process (something patentable) at all.
And the four figures purporting to show a process are trivial. The last one seems like a joke. In order to demonstrate that the patent application really, truly is about a machine, it includes a dumbed-down schematic of a general purpose computer!
The thrust of the patent is that a user can tag computer commands with her own mnemonic phrases and use those later to retrieve the commands. This idea is easily derived from all the tagging we do on Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, etc. In fact, it's a step backwards, because tagging on all of those sites aggregate the input of multiple users.
IBM has the money to spend on a parody of a patent applications, but this is still a real application and needs to be addressed as such. Like most patent applications, it may appear obvious to people in the field, and the verdict of just such as "person having ordinary skill in the art" is supposed to determine an application's fate, but we can't count on it.
I'm bemused because this application reminds me of the last one I wrote about just over a year ago. That application, like the current one, was a user interface element masquerading as patentable material. Also like the current one, it picked off the simplest aspect of the implementation and left the real work to other people.
These patents are like a student walking into an advisor's office and saying, "I'd like to show that European traders had reached the Himalayan region before the Christian era," and the advisor saying, "Good, if anybody does the research and writes up the results while you're enrolled as a student, we'll give you credit for it." That's what it would be like to grant a 20-year monopoly to these patent applicants.
Most software patents from the beginning have been of questionable novelty, but at least they used to be about hard-core, serious computing issues such as network transmission and codecs. And it's not as if we can dispense with innovation in those areas, given the strains of demand for multimedia and delivery to resource-constrained mobile devices. Why this spate of user-interface fluff?