Lately I ran across a story about a silly patent Microsoft took out on sliders. It included expressions of concern that Microsoft might see fit to sue e-book companies like Amazon, Apple, and Kobo, the way it’s suing Corel now. I think that’s unlikely, and the notion that it is stems from a misunderstanding of the patent in question. But the reason why is going to take a little explanation.
First of all, no, Microsoft didn’t patent little hamburgers, though you might be forgiven for thinking so. It would almost make more sense than what Microsoft actually did patent. In a 2006 filing, Microsoft applied for a patent on a form of user interface involving sliders—those gizmos that look like the balance controls on old stereos and slide from left to right. In particular, the patent covers sliders that are at the bottom right corner of a window, with a minus on one end and a plus on the other. The Electronic Frontier Foundation picked this patent as its “Stupid Patent of the Month” for December.
Patents are a ridiculously complex and lucrative business. Any company making a product of any level of complexity at all could have to license dozens of patents for just one product. In practice, this is why many large companies take out so many ridiculous patents—they need ridiculous patent portfolios on hand in case some other company files a ridiculous patent suit against them. Plus, they’re also handy to use if some other company’s product beats your product in the marketplace. There are just so many of these patents out there, surely someone who out-competes you must have trespassed on some of them.
And as it happens, the slider patent is part and parcel of this mutually-assured destruction. Earlier this year, Corel sued Microsoft in July over Microsoft Preview infringing on some WordPerfect patents. (Corel bought WordPerfect from Novell in 1996.) It seems Corel was unhappy that Microsoft Word had effectively surpassed WordPerfect and become the de facto word processing standard.
So now Microsoft is suing Corel right back, because products like Corel Write, Corel Calculate, and Corel Show infringe some Microsoft design patents—including the lower-right-corner slider patent. A Microsoft spokesperson even admitted this in an email to Ars Technica.
Design patents aren’t just big in desktop computer software, however. They also played a major part in the lawsuits between Samsung and Apple over the two companies potentially infringing each other’s patents in their smartphone products. Samsung recently paid Apple over half a billion dollars as a result of the suit, though Samsung has vowed to appeal it to the Supreme Court. The infringing design elements were extremely minor pieces of the overall product, and Samsung argues that the award should not be in the amount of all their profits on the product, including the parts that didn’t have anything to do with those patents.
One commentator expressed concern that Microsoft might use its patent against e-book readers and applications, since many of them (like Kindle and iBooks) employ sliders of some kind along the bottom of their screens to show the reader’s progress. However, Microsoft’s patent is on a very specific kind of slider—as mentioned, one with plus and minus signs at the end, placed in the bottom right corner of a screen. Given that these apps have very different sliders from that, it’s unlikely to be a concern. And even if it didn’t, Microsoft doesn’t have any designs on e-books or any reason to sue the people who sell devices to read them. It gave up on e-books years ago, when it sunsetted the .LIT format.
The thing worth paying attention to here—the really ridiculous aspect of it all—is how easy it would be for any application designer to infringe such a patent without even knowing it. If you’re making a photo-editing tool, for instance, it’s just common sense to have a slider with a plus sign to denote making the image bigger, and a minus to denote making it smaller. And you put it at the right because most people are right handed and they instinctively look for important stuff on the right side. It’s just an ordinary, functional bit of chrome, like a brass knob you can twist to open a door.
But if you make such an app that way, and it comes to the attention of Microsoft, you could get sued. (In practice, you probably won’t, unless you’re making enough money for it to become an interest, but still, you could be.) What’s more, it seems likely that every other possible interface design element you could use has already been patented somewhere by someone. So writing a program is a great way to end up owing a lot of people money.
Patents might be a good idea in theory—after all, few people would disagree that you have a right to profit by your own inventions. But in practice, they’ve been getting more and more complicated, unwieldy, and subject to abuse. You end up with things like patents on sliders. Can it be reformed? I don’t know. But either way, we can’t seem to go very long at all without another reminder of this patent absurdity.