Apple "steals" iPhone app ideas and patents them (and lightsabers)

By Richi Jennings. August 6 2010.

Oh goody! Another Apple PR screwup. Yet again, the boys and girls in Cupertino have given the blogosphere juicy something to get upset about. This time, Apple stands accused of stealing ideas from its 3rd-party apps and patenting them. For example, FutureTap is not amused to find its WhereTo? app depicted in an Apple patent without permission. In IT Blogwatch, bloggers get all high and mighty.

Your humble blogwatcher selected these bloggy morsels for your enjoyment. Not to mention lightsaber ignitions...


FutureTap's Ortwin Gentz bids us guten Tag:

Comparison; source: FutureTap
Apparently, Apple starts patenting mobile app ideas—and one of those ideas is (partly) ours. ... 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. ... We’re faced with a situation where we’ve to fear that our primary business partner is trying to “steal” our idea and design.


I’m not a lawyer. I can’t really judge whether ... [this] is legal. I just have to say, it doesn’t feel right. ... This episode once more reinforces my personal aversion against software patents. ... We actually read the patent application. ... Paragraph [0056] sounds like a claim that describes Where To?’s functionality pretty exactly.

Charles Starrett explains further:

The patent application, titled “Systems And Methods For Accessing Travel Services Using A Portable Electronic Device,” ... contains an illustration of a screen virtually identical to the main interface of WhereTo? from FutureTap.


While the text of the patent application doesn’t completely overlap with the idea and purpose of the WhereTo? app, its very appearance in an Apple patent application without prior notice or warning is cause for concern.

Nick Farrell employs British slang, thuswise:

Steve Jobs is channelling the ghost of Alexander Graeme Bell who nicked the idea for the telephone ... from Elisha Gray. ... If Apple gets its patents and the mobile internet can do what the landline based net does, then Apple will be in total control and be the mobile internet troll of all time.


Steve Jobs will stand up at one of his Nuremberg Rally style press conferences and receive a standing ovation ... for inventing the "new technology". It is not clear if the US Patent Office will work out what Apple is doing.

But Rosa Golijan asks the all-important question:

Is this some sort of cruel joke or just an innocent misunderstanding? ... Odd compliment or not though, somehow the whole thing is a bit awkward and ... I'd love to hear some patent lawyers chime in on the whole situation.


This isn't the first or only odd similarity between an existing app and an illustration in an Apple patent application.

Dan Wineman would prefer "good developer relations" and "common decency":

For prior art to come into play, the actual claims of the patent would have to cover one or more functions of Where To ... [but they don’t: the patent is entirely concerned with automatic location-based travel notifications. The diagram is just part of an example.


It’s more likely that the people involved in drawing up this patent simply didn’t think about the message it would send to developers. ... But there remains a conflict of interest in Apple acting as the sole steward of the iOS software universe while also filing patents in areas that have long been staked out by third-party developers.

Who ya gonna call? Brian Ford crosses the streams: [groan -Ed.]

I deal with patent applications a lot at work because they’re often used as evidence in trials that I work on. ... My suspicion ... is basically much ado about nothing, but I suppose it’s always possible that Apple ripped off someone’s exact design and is now trying to patent it, thinking that no one would notice. ... (A bit of sarcasm there.)


The real problem, as I see it, is that no one thought to approach FutureTap. ... That’s Apple’s fault. ... I’ll be interested to see how Apple responds.

Meanwhile, Rene Ritchie calls Apple "inconsiderate":

The image is chilling for developers, especially since it doesn’t appear like Apple contacted them to let them know they were using it. ... That Apple would use an exact rendering of an existing app ... is curious.


Apple is the giant in their forest and sometimes ... they’ll step on the far, far smaller villagers who inhabit it. If enough villagers ... make enough noise, the Apple giant might pause, shrug, say “my bad” ... but it will always be the giant in their own forest.

And Finally...

Every Lightsaber Ignition & Retraction

[hat tip: ROFLrazzi]

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Richi Jennings, your humble blogwatcher
  Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and security. A cross-functional IT geek since 1985, you can follow him as @richi on Twitter, pretend to be richij's friend on Facebook, or just use good old email:

You can also read Richi's full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

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