Apple Patents: Round 4

Blind Confidential set another record for readership yesterday at double our previous record (set on Friday) and approximately 6x our daily average.  I guess BC readers find Apple’s monopolistic practices interesting.  Today marks the fourth consecutive item about the subject, which I think sets another record for lack of topical variety on Blind Confidential.  Hopefully, the next article I write for this blog will take on a different topic, maybe Gonz will need to pay us a visit to lighten things up a bit.

Returning to the topic of Apple’s nasty patent practices and their long history of intellectual property aggression, I am proud to announce that Richard Stallman has offered to help us fight these patents and will act as a consultant to any blindness agency or other organization interested in maintaining free and open access to the concepts of self-voicing interfaces and user agents.  For those of you who don’t know of Richard Stallman, frequently called rms from his many years of using his initials as his login and email address, he owns the distinction of fathering the free software movement.  Long before Linus had developed a kernel, Stallman had started the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Project GNU.  He authored the famous GNU Manifesto, GPL and Copyleft, the basis for all free software and open source licenses and copyrights today.  

Well before the GNU/Linux distributions started making some people rich, Stallman led the GNU hackers in building emacs (his personal baby), gcc, bash, bison, gawk, Flex, gnu chess, hack (one of the first MUD like programs), gnu go and many other tools still used today.  Stallman has lectured on intellectual freedom on virtually every continent and is an “A list” guest at virtually any conference that discusses GNU/Linux or other free software concepts.  

Stallman’s biography, “Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software,” is available on for $15 new and as little as $6.75 used.  I do not know if there is an audio version of the book or if anyone has scanned it into an e-text format accessible to readers with vision impairments.  I no longer own a scanner with a sheet feeder so I don’t want to scan it myself but would be very happy if a volunteer steps forward either with a link to a place where people can download the book or to scan it themselves and send it to me so I can post it somewhere for blinks to get it.  [A peculiar feeling came over me as I waded through the generic crap that amazon puts on pages about any book in their catalogue, specifically, I wondered who would put this book on their wedding registry.  While I find rms and free software compelling, I cannot relate it to marital bliss in any way shape or form.]

Back to the subject at hand.  We will put up a petition similar to the one that got google to start making accessibility changes and to offer blind users an alternative to their Turing tests about Apple later this week.  This issue is far more complex than the one with google and it is oriented toward the future rather than the present so some people may not understand the urgency of defeating these patents.  People who agree with the position I take, that these patents filed by Apple are both non-unique and will possibly limit choices for blind people in the future, should do their best to explain to others what this problem truly entails.  Intellectual property law can be difficult to grasp and terms like “copyright,” “trademark” and “patent,” are often mistaken for each other.  

A copyright covers a specific piece of material.  The copyright to Blind Confidential (except where another source is cited) is my property.  I can sell these posts, give them away for free, allow others to republish them with permission or license them for a fee.  To copyright something, you merely need to add a copyright notice somewhere in the item you have written and a date and it becomes your property from then on.  You can register your copyright by sending a copy of your work to the copyright office along with a check for whatever fee it is that they currently charge.

When it comes to software, a copyright covers the specific implementation of a computer program.  Thus, Apple owns the copyright to its Tiger desktop; Microsoft owns the copyright to Windows and Adobe the copyright to Acrobat.  If a bunch of hackers sat down and created a Windows clone, they could sell it, give it away or do whatever they chose with it as the copyright would be theirs.  This became the law of the land when the Supreme Court ruled in Lotus v. Borland that functionality and appearance could not be covered by copyright law.  This ruling reaffirmed a previous decision by the Supremes that did not allow an artistic colony to copyright the appearance of a very unique looking wheelbarrow that they had invented.

Next, we have trademark.  A trademark is typically the name, logo or some other identifying feature of how a product is branded.  Thus, Coca Cola, IBM, the shape of a Coke bottle, Burger King, Macintosh and Microsoft Windows are all examples of a trademark.  If a name or logo is covered by a trademark, someone else cannot go out and use the same name or logo to start a similar business.  For example, I can write my own clone of the Tiger desktop and release it as free software.  I cannot, however, advertise or otherwise promote it by calling it Tiger, OSX, Apple, Macintosh or anything else that would lead a consumer to think that it might be the original Apple product.  If I like, I could call it “TINA” for Tina is not Apple just like Stallman avoided violating the AT&T UNIX trademark by calling his project GNU for Gnu’s Not Unix.

Finally, we get to patents, the most insidious of intellectual property “protections” available to a software vendor.  A patent can cover a particular invention, a process or a combination of functions.  The patent office, as I mentioned earlier in this series, was started by Benjamin Franklin and funded by an early US Congress.  For nearly 200 years, the patent office was funded by tax dollars and staffed by actual experts in many fields.  Sometime during the Reagan administration, the patent office lost its direct funding and had to rely on fees to support its existence.  Since then, the expertise of patent examiners has dropped as they could make far better salaries in the private sector and the patent office has started approving many more applications than ever before – ostensibly to increase the number of applications and, therefore, fees.  Thus, many more inventions one might consider obvious receive patent protection.  What makes matters worse is that patents are issued for concepts that have plenty of demonstrable published prior art that is never found as the prior art searches receive far less funding than ever before.  

When granted a patent, an “inventor” gets a 17 year monopoly on their “invention” and can use this legal document to foil competition and innovation as they see fit.  This seems to be Apple’s motivation for filing for patents on the self-voicing menu navigation system which has been selling to people with vision impairments since the original release of the Blazie Braille and Speak (if not before) and on the user agent concept to which I listed four publications that I personally have made prior to their application and assume that other people have disclosed similar concepts as well.

So, while, unlike the google issue which prevented us blinks from accessing their web site on the day the petition went up, the Apple situation is about whether or not they are granted these patents and whether or not they are used to limit our choices in the future.  This is a lot more abstract but, compared to the google situation where we could opt to use other web sites, Apple can, if granted these patents, prevent any other vendor from selling similar products.  Thus, the future we blinks face can be marred by Apple’s legal maneuverings and our choices can be limited by their actions.

I hope this explains the issue well enough.  I’ve spent a lot of years reading about IP law and various nuances thereof and, although no expert, I’m pretty strong with definitions and potential outcomes.

Words from Apple aficionados:

Although we have set records for readership in two of the previous four days, comments on the Apple issue have been fairly minimal.  Only two people posted comments to Blind Confidential and a few others have sent me email.  

One of the emailers is also the person who convinced me not to dismiss Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader out of hand but, rather, to go out and give it a try, which I did.  That’s how I came to the conclusion that VoiceOver had a lot more value than I had previously credited it with and, if it provides all of the functionality a user needs from a screen reader, that the $600 Macintosh Mini can serve as a perfectly useful and cost effective alternative for blind consumers to include in their list of possibilities.  The email this person sent me yesterday included two especially enlightening statements.  The first accused me and another advocate of open systems of “giving Apple too much credit,” because we actually thought that Apple might behave as a decent corporate citizen.  He stated that the Macintosh and its very clean look and feel often blinds him to their corporate evils and he concludes by saying that, “Steve Jobs is a definite jerk,” and is, “not someone you would want in your collection of personal contacts.”  I thank him for his honesty and for being able to remove the Apple rainbow colored glasses and take a clear look at the company as the entity it truly is.

All of the other emails I received on the subject supported my position and some suggested more radical action than a petition and letter writing campaign.  I left the radicals to their own devices but did like one suggestion.  If a bunch of we blinks go out and buy 1 share each of Apple stock, we can attend their shareholders meeting.  If we get enough people, I’ll post the lyrics to “We shall Overcome” and we can start practicing at home.

We received only a single comment from an Apple supporter who chose to remain anonymous rather than even having the courage of Gabe to argue against the positions I state in Blind Confidential.  As this comment was short enough, I’ll quote it in its entirety, “Can’t be bothered to read this article – suffice to say Apple have innovated far more in the technology field than most others and Windows ONLY exists because of a badly worded agreement when apple was run by accountants!”

To rebut:  First off, if this reader had read the three articles I had written on this subject (Friday, Saturday and yesterday) he may have noticed that I never suggest that Apple does not innovate.  For years, with their “blind people need not apply” sign hanging on the Macintosh user interface, Apple continued to raise the technical bar with nearly every OS release.  Putting a hard disk into an iPod certainly revolutionized the way we think about portable media players and, going back to 1984, releasing the Macintosh as the first ever computer to come standard with a software speech synthesizer certainly demonstrated a tremendous level of innovation.

I do not say that Apple doesn’t innovate, I protest Apple’s use of sleazy legal tactics to stifle competition and innovation in the market at large.  The two particular patents I have discussed for the past five days do not express any innovation on the part of Apple and both seem to have a library of prior art in academic publications and assistive technology products.  Thus, I protest Apple’s claim of monopoly on these concepts which were not original and would, if approved, keep other companies from adding similar features to their products and letting us as consumers choose which product we want rather than being forced to accept the Apple product as the only solution.

If Mr. Anonymous would take off his apple shaped, rainbow colored glasses; he might also realize that Microsoft Windows exists because windowing systems have grown extremely popular among consumers.  If he had signed his message and would engage in dialogue like a normal adult, I would ask him if he thought that gnome, Motif, the Symbian windowing system, Palm OS, the B-OS system, the NeXT machine that a sulking Steve Jobs sold, the Xerox Star system which Apple based their ideas on, Greenblatt’s windowing system that the guys at Xerox used to build the Star, X-Windows, upon which many other GNU/Linux and Unix windowing systems are based and the countless other windowing systems out there for virtually every platform on the market are also the result of sloppy contracts written by Apple when it was run by accountants?  I’m especially curious about the Xerox Star and the Lisp Machine at MIT as they came well before the Lisa and, in the case of Greenblatt’s windowing system, even before the Apple II.

Thus, I believe that market forces and not some sloppy language in a contract made MS Windows and all of these others possible.  If any in this group has claim to ownership of the idea, it would be Greenblatt and MIT, his employer at the time, would “own” the intellectual property behind the concept if such legal strategies were permitted back then.  

So, to conclude day four of the Apple Patent Siege of Blind Confidential, please send me any prior art you can find to these patents, send letters to the PTO and to Apple, buy a single share of Apple stock and join me at their stockholders meeting, write to the advocacy organization of your choice to ask them to make official statements opposing these patents and, by all means, remind everyone to innovate, not litigate.


I am feeling a bit quixotic in my quest against Apple.  This isn’t the first time I’ve taken on giants but I’m not as young as I once was.  While I deplore these particular patents, there may be others out there that will limit choices for people with vision impairments in the future.  I hope that others who support me in this battle will join in and publicly state their position and help organize our community and our friends to help stop these patents from being granted.  I’m just a guy with a blog, I need to work for a paycheck (a time consuming task) and I cannot do this on my own.

On a completely separate topic, does anyone know of a laptop computer that can run JAWS, is powerful enough to use as a development machine and doesn’t get so hot that one cannot use it effectively while wearing short pants?  I live in Florida, our nation has an energy shortage, the world’s oil production is about to reach its peek, people should conserve energy so I keep the air conditioning at a comfortable setting rather than the polar freeze of many homes in Florida to be a good citizen and be a bit frugal with the electric bill.  At the same time, the laptops we have in our house (a Toshiba and a Sony) both get so hot that I need to wear long pants to keep from burning the hair off of my calves.  So, is their a “cool” laptop?  Maybe I should just get a Blue Tooth keyboard and stop complaining.

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

3 thoughts on “Apple Patents: Round 4”

  1. A former vice-president of Freedom Scientific is in a weak position to assail Apple’s “monopoly,” given that you testified in Microsoft’s favour in the antitrust hearings that later found Microsoft to have engaged in monopolistic practices.

    Your understanding of copyright is also poor. “To copyright something, you merely need to add a copyright notice somewhere in the item you have written and a date and it becomes your property from then on” is false. Copyright exists from the moment a work is fixed in a tangible form.

    “When it comes to software, a copyright covers the specific implementation of a computer program. Thus, Apple owns the copyright to its Tiger desktop.” The what? Copyright applies to software created in a fixed form, e.g., a file, CD, or disc.

    If you find patents “insidious,” why did Freedom Scientific register one?

  2. Howdy Comrades! I join Blind Christian by issuing a Chairman Mal Candy apple Red Alert and call to Action against the perfidious capitalist swine at Apple for their perfidious attempt to patent what doesn’t belong to them. Blind Christian has demonstrated he knows the score and deserves support from all the Peeps. Buy a share of the Bad Apple or rue the day you let this slide. Sign the petition and get your friends to do the same. We can’t ignore the threat. Regards, chairman mal: Power to the Peeps!

  3. Howdy Comrades! I join Blind Christian by issuing a Chairman Mal Candy apple Red Alert and call to Action against the perfidious capitalist swine at Apple for their perfidious attempt to patent what doesn’t belong to them. Blind Christian has demonstrated he knows the score and deserves support from all the Peeps. Buy a share of the Bad Apple or rue the day you let this slide. Sign the petition and get your friends to do the same. We can’t ignore the threat. Regards, chairman mal: Power to the Peeps!

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