Mobile

Controversy erupts over Apple software patent "copying" existing app's home screen

Today’s Apple controversy: Apparently, a recent mobile app patent filed by Apple is blatantly copying the home screen of an existing application — the local search app Where Toreports GigaOm.

The problem with that analysis? After reading Apple’s patent, which details methods for accessing travel services on portable devices, it’s clear that Apple isn’t intending to steal the app’s functionality — it’s merely using it as an example.

Pictured in Apple’s patent app is a home screen that is unmistakably the same as Where To’s user interface (see picture above). It was reported last week that Apple has begun filing patents for mobile app ideas — something that is already highly contentious, since many believe software patents shouldn’t exist in the first place. Since it appeared that Apple copied someone else’s idea, the response by many was venomous.

Nobody was as surprised as FutureTap, the company behind the Where To app (which it purchased for $70,000 in 2008). Founder Ortwin Gentz writes in a blog post:

At first, we couldn’t believe what we saw and felt it can’t be true that someone else is filing a patent including a 1:1 copy of our start screen. Things would be way easier of course if that “someone else” would be really an exterior “someone else”. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

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.

He goes on to say that he’s unsure of the legality of using Where To’s interface in the patent app, but it “doesn’t feel right.” In the end, that may be the big problem with the situation. Apple should have at least let the developer know that it would be mimicking its interface for the application, which would have avoided much of the controversy.

GigaOm commenter Gary Watson explains why the image itself isn’t a huge deal: “After reading the claims, it’s clear that the spinning wheel image stolen from the 3rd party app was not part of the claimed invention at all and was just an illustration. You see this a lot in patents, where an exemplar device such as a Dell laptop is used in a drawing but is not part of the claims.”

FutureTap remains suspicious of that explanation, particularly since Apple’s patent application goes on to to describe the basic functionality of its Where To app. Apple also has a history of copying the work of smaller developers — most recently, with the design of its iBooks app on the iPad and iPhone, which looked very similar to both the Classics and Delicious Library apps.

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