Prior Art

Do the tablets in Kubricks 2001 movie constitute “prior art” to the iPad?

This question recently incited much heated discussion on Twitter1. What made this spike my interest in such a fashion is my love for science fiction, and in particular the works of Arthur C. Clarke. Many of his ideas specifically, came to fruition decades later. For example, in 1945 Arthur C. Clarke inadvertently invented satellites. He didn’t patent them; as he put it:

I’m often asked why I didn’t try to patent the idea of communications satellites. My answer is always, “A patent is really a license to be sued”.

Now Clarke merely described what would later become satellites. He didn’t build one, nor did he design how such a thing looks. And indeed satellites today come in all manner of configurations and designs, yet they are still, clearly, satellites.

These days Apple is busy suing Samsung for infringing on Apples look and feel patents with their Galaxy line of phones and tablets. Put simply, Galaxy S phones are too like the iPhone, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is too like the iPad. While the comparison photos in the suit filing appear to have been doctored2, I’m not going to argue that Samsung TouchWiz is inspired by Apples iOS (which it clearly is)3.

Focusing on what sparked this discussion — could the tablet devices seen in the 2001 movie constitute prior art for the iPad — I do think that’s fair to say and I’ll get to why I think that is. Whether or not they’re merely portable televisions, they are electronic devices and their form factor is certainly strikingly similar to that of the iPad. But is it prior art?

Prior art:

Prior art [...], in most systems of patent law, constitutes all information that has been made available to the public in any form before a given date that might be relevant to a patent’s claims of originality. If an invention has been described in prior art, a patent on that invention is not valid.

To be specific, Apple is suing Samsung over 4 patents. Two of those are related to the iPhone form factor. One is related to how iOS works. The fourth patent is over the tablet form factor; here’s the illustration from the patent application:

ipad_patent

If you explore the patent application itself (beware, TIFF file), you’ll note that no specific size is noted in the patent application. The tablet illustrated doesn’t necessarily have a 10 inch screen.

Samsung is in a tight spot. While I find it surprising (and disappointing) that these four patents were granted in the first place, they clearly appear to have been infringed upon. Were I in Samsungs shoes, (and if I were I’d never have released TouchWiz in the first place) I’d be doing everything I could to defend against this suit. Certainly if I was able to find prior art that invalidated any of the four patents in question, I’d look wherever I could, even in my old sci-fi DVD collection. In the case of that one patent Apple has on the tablet form factor, I do see why Samsung would try and invoke prior art on that (though I’m surprised they didn’t pick Picards tablet instead). You see, if Samsung can convince the judge that patent #4 is invalid — that the slabs shown in 2001 are reminiscent of the pencil sketch shown above — it would cut their woes by a fourth.

Samsung is not my favorite Android vendor. They’re not even my favorite hardware vendor. Perhaps it would be good for them to suffer a defeat at the hands of Apple.

But I do consider Arthur C. Clarkes description of a satellite to be prior art. I consider Larry Nivens description of a ring-world to be prior art to the ring shown in the Halo video game. And so, hearing Samsung cite Kubricks tablets as prior art to the iPad is not the dumbest thing I ever heard. Apples tablet is a wonderful combination of a well-designed user-experience and durable, delicious hardware. Even so, the form factor described in their tablet patent is not a unique snowflake, as countless sci-fi authors would have you know.

  1. I feel I should apologize to those of you who happen to follow both me and Heilemann on Twitter for having polluted your streams.  
  2. For example, scaling down the Tab and opening the App drawer for the photo op instead of comparing the homescreen to the homescreen.  
  3. In fact I loathe Android skins in general and would like nothing more than Apple forcing Samsung to improve, or better yet rid the world of TouchWiz  

Responses to “Prior Art”

  1. All but one of the Apple patent claims were struck down and Apple have only the photo gallery one to use now. ‘Course the photo gallery Samsung use is the default one in Android 2.3 which will probably ensure a legal tussle between Apple and Google sooner rather than later..

    • Joen says:

      All but one of the Apple patent claims were struck down and Apple have only the photo gallery one to use now.

      Interesting! I somehow must’ve missed that news!

      ‘Course the photo gallery Samsung use is the default one in Android 2.3 which will probably ensure a legal tussle between Apple and Google sooner rather than later..

      I’m convinced Larry Page knows this, and I would wager they just bought Motorolas patents to be in a better position once that happens!

  2. Yeah, this engadget post has been updated. Commentators are saying it’s a win for Samsung because Apple have played their card and it wasn’t as strong as they thought.

    I think you could be right about Motorola’s patent portfolio. I want to see an end to this. The only winners are the lawyers.

    • Joen says:

      Yeah, this engadget post has been updated. Commentators are saying it’s a win for Samsung because Apple have played their card and it wasn’t as strong as they thought.

      Interesting. Looks like Google might have to replace the Gallery3D application. This app, incidentally, was developed by Cooliris. I’ve always thought it to be terrible, janky, slow and unstable.

    • Joen says:

      I think you could be right about Motorola’s patent portfolio. I want to see an end to this. The only winners are the lawyers.

      Truest words I’ve heard today.

  3. Sorry for the late reply; had to take care of Irene.

    The satellite business is not really a particularly apt comparison; it describes a system in abstract terms, whereas Apple’s beef with Samsung is a matter of very concrete similarities between the Galaxy Tab and the iPad. Specifically that: “Rather than innovate … Samsung chose to copy Apple’s technology, user interface, and innovative style in these infringing products” #.

    Samsung is (like you) trying to abstract the idea of ‘prior art’ by trying to make it about whether or not a flat (supposedly) computer has been seen before. If that were the problem, then their 2001 claim would make sense. If their tablet looked like the 2001 ‘tablet’ (which is a TV, for all intents and purposes despite Samsung’s ridiculous, unfounded claims to the contrary) that too wouldn’t be a problem.

    The problem is that Samsung’s device looks not like that, but like the iPad. They chose a smaller, 16:9 formatted screen, but beyond that, it is a very similar device. You look at the black, one-piece glass front with the wide bezel and the rounded corners. That, is an iPad. It’s a design that Apple made. It may seem obvious, but it is not.

    Here is a press image. Notice aside from the black menu bar and dock-like… ehm… dock, the Phone icon, which is for all intents and purposes identical to the phone icon from the iPhone. Notice the Music icon, which is an old-school color-graded iTunes icon, the screen dots…

    Would a layman know the difference between and iPad and a Galaxy Tab? That’s what this is really about.

    Back in the 80’s, when Star Wars was a smash hit and Battlestar Galactica had come out, Lucasfilm went to court with the producers. Most people think they did this because Lucas felt that BG had stolen concepts from Star Wars. Vipers, capes, space dog fighting, robots and so on, which may have been part of it, another thing was that old members of ILM worked on the show using technology developed for Star Wars, and McQuarrie even did concept art for the show. So yeah, that was probably part of it too. However…

    What had really happened, was that a kid choked on a cruddy BG toy of some sort, and the family went to court for damages. The problem was that the family’s lawyer thought Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars were one and the same.

    Lucasfilm took BG to court because it wanted to court and people to know, that BG and Star Wars were not the same, and that Star Wars toys were not a danger to children everywhere.

    Oh, and the 2001 claim is no longer the dumbest thing I ever heard:

    Today’s ruling is an affirmation that the GALAXY range of products is innovative and distinctive. #

    Ha. Ha. Find me a tablet that is less innovative and distinctive than the Galaxy Tab, and I owe you a beer. HP fucked up with WebOS, but they were doing something innovative and distinctive. Microsoft is doing something innovative and distinctive. Samsung couldn’t innovate and distinctivate their way out of a wet paper bag.

    And unless I misunderstand, the striking down is only in Holland.

    • Joen says:

      Sorry for the late reply; had to take care of Irene.

      Right. That thing. How did that go, by the way?

      Alright, gonna jump right in:

      The problem is that Samsung’s device looks not like that, but like the iPad. They chose a smaller, 16:9 formatted screen, but beyond that, it is a very similar device.

      Okay I hate to be the one discussing semantics here, but since this whole case appears to be mainly semantics, I feel compelled to.

      That quote above, you mention the Tab is a “very similar device”. Sure, it is. But in my mind, it’s no more similar to the iPad than it is similar to the 2001 device. Which I think is the crux. Clearly you find it _more_ similar than I do (which I guess puts us at an impasse), but I do think we agree that there is a line between being, for lack of a better word, “original” and being a copycat. Right?

      I’m glad this case went to courts. Because at least it means a judge had to decide where that line is. We can’t agree where it is, that much is clear.

      It may seem obvious, but it is not.

      Oh but showing me that link is that not pretty much turning my argument on its head? Just because you show me a bunch of tablet PCs that clearly look nothing like the iPad doesn’t mean there is no argument from prior art.

      Here is a press image. Notice aside from the black menu bar and dock-like… ehm… dock, the Phone icon, which is for all intents and purposes identical to the phone icon from the iPhone. Notice the Music icon, which is an old-school color-graded iTunes icon, the screen dots…

      I hear what you’re saying. Samsung is making a tablet that is very similar to the iPad, hoping to ride its wave of popularity. Gotcha. I think it’s a flawed strategy, I don’t think it’ll succeed for Samsung, and yup, that green icon is incriminating.

      But that still doesn’t make the prior art argument the dumbest thing I ever heard.

  4. > Just because you show me a bunch of tablet PCs that clearly look nothing like the iPad doesn’t mean there is no argument from prior art.

    I don’t mean to be that guy, but either I haven’t articulated my point well enough, or you’re not reading my argument properly. Samsung is trying to abstract the concept of prior art, but the case is literally about Samsung having been inspired very specifically by the iPad. You feel like their abstract argument is valid, I think they’re deliberatly trying to obscure the case (which is obvious, you even say as much) by abstracting it.

    And more to the point, I think they’re deliberatly lying/misdirecting in their claim, calling 2001’s devices ‘personal tablet computers’, which there is nothing to indicate that they are. And linking to a random user video on YouTube with the title: “Apple iPad in the 1969 classic: 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY”… Because that’s not biasing whoever is reading that claim.

    > I hear what you’re saying. Samsung is making a tablet that is very similar to the iPad, hoping to ride its wave of popularity. Gotcha. I think it’s a flawed strategy, I don’t think it’ll succeed for Samsung, and yup, that green icon is incriminating.

    > But that still doesn’t make the prior art argument the dumbest thing I ever heard.

    That’s because you’re not linking the two. Samsung stole the iPad’s design, and now they’re defending their piracy with a portable flat-screen TV?

    If your description of the iPad is a flat screen that shows video, then yes, you have a point. If your description of the iPad is a small, flat computer with bezeled corners, a black, glass-covered front, nearly no buttons and a multi-touch interface, a black menu bar, a dock, a grid of icons and so forth. Well, then it’s a very different thing.

    It’s the dumbest thing ever heard, because Samsung KNOWS that they stole the iPad’s design, and they’re trying to misdirect the case.

  5. matthew says:

    >Samsung couldn’t innovate and distinctivate their way out of a wet paper bag.
    Too true, and Samsung’s lazy-assed copy/paste UI designers are setting a terrible example for all the other tech companies. “We’re getting away with paying our designers to do nothing – YOU can too!”.

    >It’s the dumbest thing ever heard, because Samsung KNOWS that they stole the iPad’s design, and they’re trying to misdirect the case.
    Sadly also too true, and they continue to show absolutely no effort to follow their own path.
    Android seems to encourage and reward this cloning of successful interfaces. sad.

    http://www.geeky-gadgets.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Samsung-Galaxy-LTE.jpg

    • Joen says:

      Michael Heilemann,

      I don’t mean to be that guy, but either I haven’t articulated my point well enough, or you’re not reading my argument properly.

      You know me dude. I’m getting you. I’m just not agreeing with you in this particular case.

      matthew,

      Samsung’s lazy-assed copy/paste UI designers are setting a terrible example for all the other tech companies

      Hey now, blame the generals here, not the soldiers. I want to give the UI designers the benefit of the doubt: it’s entirely possible they wanted to make something brilliant but the sales people up top kept saying “more iPhone like”.

      Sadly also too true, and they continue to show absolutely no effort to follow their own path.
      Android seems to encourage and reward this cloning of successful interfaces. sad.

      Alright, we’ve officially gone into the reductio ad absurdum territory, and I can play that game. Here’s a list of the dumbest things I ever heard:

      – I like the color red because it’s a fire. And I see myself as always being on fire. –California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
      – Isn’t that the ultimate homeland security, standing up and defending marriage? –Sen. Rick Santorum
      – Can you hear me? Squeeze once for yes and twice for no. — Police detective questioning a wounded officer
      – It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it. — Dan Quayle
      – They only come out in the night. Or in this case, the day. –Chief Wiggum

  6. matthew says:

    >Alright, we’ve officially gone into the reductio ad absurdum territory, and I can play that game.

    I call on empirical evidence. WebOS and WindowsPhone make an effort to dig their own furrow, Android, because its free to the manufacturers does not.

    Though maybe I was sounding a bit hysterical :\

    >Hey now, blame the generals here, not the soldiers. I want to give the UI designers the benefit of the doubt: it’s entirely possible they wanted to make something brilliant but the sales people up top kept saying “more iPhone like”

    Hmm, maybe. They still went and copy/pasted at minimum the phone icon and iTunes icon though.

  7. matthew says:

    >they wanted to make something brilliant but the sales people up top kept saying “more iPhone like”.

    So you agree that Samsung ARE guilty of attempting to clone the iPhone in order to fool potential customers? Because that’s what that statement says to me.

    • Joen says:

      So you agree that Samsung ARE guilty of attempting to clone the iPhone in order to fool potential customers? Because that’s what that statement says to me.

      To quote myself in the post:

      I’m not going to argue that Samsung TouchWiz is inspired by Apples iOS (which it clearly is)

      While I find it surprising (and disappointing) that these four patents were granted in the first place, they clearly appear to have been infringed upon

      Perhaps it would be good for them to suffer a defeat at the hands of Apple.

      Yes, I most definitely agree that it appears the higher-ups at Samsung thought they could sell more tablets by creating an experience that is easily mistaken for an actual iPad.

      I thought this discussion was about whether Samsung calling “prior art” on the 2001 slate in a patent litigation defence was “the dumbest thing I ever heard”. And it’s not. I’ve heard dumber things.

  8. matthew says:

    >I thought this discussion was about whether Samsung calling “prior art” on the 2001 slate in a patent litigation defence was “the dumbest thing I ever heard”. And it’s not. I’ve heard dumber things.

    Fair enough, I got diverted. I do still agree with Michael. Also, I’m sure if you searched hard enough you could find ‘tablets’ that predated 2001. Though they’re TVs.

  9. > You know me dude. I’m getting you. I’m just not agreeing with you in this particular case.

    Nor have you responded to any of the points I’ve made :|

    • Joen says:

      Nor have you responded to any of the points I’ve made

      I love you man, but I’m don’t have the energy to do this anymore. You forget how old I am. I need my naptime! Also, I am not in the business of defending Samsung. I have stated my case for why I don’t think the comparison to flat portable TV screens is the “dumbest thing I’ve ever heard”. In my mind, that’s all there ever was to this whole tirade. You think it’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t. We don’t have to agree to disagree. But we will have to disagree.

  10. Maaaan, this is like if Batman gave up and the Joker had no one to play with :| Or vice versa.

    • Joen says:

      Maaaan, this is like if Batman gave up and the Joker had no one to play with :|Or vice versa.

      It’s more like when Bane broke Batmans back. You’re Bane.

  11. matthew says:

    Sounds more like Edward Cullen v Jacob Black in Twilight to me :p

  12. You just referenced Twilight… Is there an internet law about this somewhere?

  13. matthew says:

    >Does that make you Bella?

    You wish lol

  14. Samsung is prohibited from selling its Galaxy Tab 10.1 in Germany. Minutes ago a Dusseldorf judge upheld the temporary ban, rejecting Samsung’s attempts to overturn it. In making the ruling, judge Johanna Brueckner-Hofmann said that to an informed consumer, the Galaxy Tab looks like Apple’s protected design. She added that, “The court is of the opinion that Apple’s minimalistic design isn’t the only technical solution to make a tablet computer, other designs are possible.” #

    Prior art indeed.

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