Gone Amok: Software Slide Lock Patent Wars

Software “locks” have been with us for years. In fact, they’re just digital child-proof safety cabinet latches.

Litigation over who can own and patent design concepts, even when centuries old, is completely out of control.

It’s instructive to glance at a quick Google search for “slide lock patent” — you’ll get over 4 million hits.

Almost every “object” in our modern software graphic user interfaces has an exact analog in the old-fashioned mechanical world of cabinets, drawers, handles, pulls, latches, catches, files, folders, desktops, and locks.

From today’s SlashDot:

“In a move that is likely to have wide-ranging implications for patent rulings around the world, a High Court Judge in the UK has ruled that HTC did not infringe on a number if Apple’s patents. ‘He said Apple’s slide-to-unlock feature was an “obvious” development in the light of a similar function on an earlier Swedish handset.’ Two other patents that Apple had claimed were infringed were ruled invalid, while a third was found not to apply to HTC. A statement from the Taiwanese firm said: ‘HTC is pleased with the ruling, which provides further confirmation that Apple’s claims against HTC are without merit. We remain disappointed that Apple continues to favour competition in the courtroom over competition in the marketplace.’ Apple declined to comment on the specifics of the case. Instead it re-issued an earlier statement, saying: ‘We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.'”

I’m not taking sides here, partly because Asia is notorious for disrespecting American software copyrights and patents. Mostly, on a deeper level, something is horribly out of control across both oceans. We’re all trying to patent drawer pull analogs and the “look and feel” of natural woodgrain laminates.

The evolution of the software slide lock has been long in coming. Its design purpose was to provide a protective control someplace in between completely open access and a compete userid/password lockdown. The idea is to prevent the user from accidentally triggering an action or changing a setting they didn’t intend to, without being overly intrusive.

  • DOS and Linux users will remember the ubiquitous command-line question “Are you sure (Y/N)?”
  • Mac and Windows users will remember the old two-button “dialog boxes” that used to pop up, asking us, “You are about to permanently change your Administrator Password,” presenting the iconic “OK” and Cancel buttons.
  • Since Snow Leopard or somewhat before, Apple had adopted a graphic symbol of a tiny padlock. You had to click that symbol before you could change a user setting or preference. You could click the symbol again to re-lock.
  • Currently I see the new “slide locks”in the Apple Store, and on my iPad. Its larger size facilitates “gesture” inputs on touch-screens. The requirement that we intentionally slide a slider to unlock, further safeguards against unintentional unlocks on either smart devices or older Mac and PC mouse-click technologies.

There are many ways to write a better or faster algorithm, app or entire operating system. I strongly support copyrights and patents for original software code. I’ll grant there are few things more discouraging than writing a snazzy new software slide lock, only to see it go viral a few months later. We also saw these same issues back in the 1950’s as car manufacturers shamelessly copied styles from others, but we never saw Buick suing Lincoln or Packard because of the occasional, more-than-passing resemblances of their chromed front grilles.

Making litigation even more fractious is the fact that patent systems differ worldwide. The same infringement lawsuits must often be filed in China, Holland, the UK, Belgium, and the USA.

I suspect a solution will need an international consortium of legal and industrial cooperation. It may require complete removal of protection for purely cosmetic enhancements which intentionally mimic older mechanical hardware analogs. Or, it may evolve a new limited-term patent category for intangible puffery, say, for one year. That would allow some design exclusivity without stymieing creative design.

Let’s think one last time about the cabinet and furniture hardware industry. For “pulls” – handles to open drawers, cabinet doors and the like – we can think of the hundreds and hundreds of available designs we’ve seen. Chromed. Brass. Round. Square Ornate old English, Scandinavian minimalist, and on and on. The older we are, the more designs we can remember. And then there are the matching hinges – concealed, ornate, heavy-duty, and so forth. How far should laws allow the patent system to go?

The basic design process was all the same: start with a mechanical drawing or wax sculpture. Make a die or investment casting. Stamp or cast them out by the hundreds of thousands, in catalogs featuring thousands of different designs. If we’d opened all those designs up to the patent and litigation process, would we ever have made it into the 21st century? Whether fabricated by investment casting or software subroutines, They’re all just handles, latches, pulls, and locks.

We need to clean up our byzantine, gone-amok legal systems that determine what can be patented, not to mention freeing up choked worldwide legal systems which really should be deploying their resources on much more pressing concerns.

851 total views, 1 views today