That’ll be $0.01 per double-click, please.

The United States Patent Office recently awarded patent
to Microsoft.

For double clicking.

Yep. Double clicking.

Now, I’ve never been enamored with the patent process. I actually have two
of Microsoft’s oldest patents, 4,955,066 and 5,109,433, and collaborated on a third.
When I went into the process for the first one, my thought was “what? this
can’t be patentable”. 4,955,066, “Compressing and
decompressing text files”, was created as a result of my work on on-line help.
The problem was to come up with a mechanism to compress help files such that
they would fit on floppy disks, while still being fast to access. I was very
proud of the “slick tight code” I wrote at the time, in x86 assembly language,
that decompressed helpfiles at blazing speed. So what was patentable? The
algorithm – which was nothing more than a combination of three pre-existing and
fairly well known algorithms. (Text was run-length encoded, then keyword
encoded, then Huffman encoded. That’s it. That’s the patent in a nutshell.)

I used to joke that I lost a lot of respect for the patent process when that
patent was accepted. But I accept now that most inventions are in fact
combinations of pre-existing things. And no one had used that combination
before, so … it was patentable. Not exciting. Not even particularly
technically superior. Fairly mundane, in fact. While I feel a great affinity
for the code I wrote to implement it, the algorithm that was patented just
isn’t that exciting.

But double click? It’s so ludicrous – I can’t even bring myself to comment
on the “merits”.

However what baffles me completely is that there a concept in the patent
process called “prior art” that says you can’t patent something that someone
else can document has having done prior to your date of submission. Double
click (and Triple click, and so on, which the patent also apparently tries to
cover) has been around for a long time, right? How could it possibly
have been awarded a patent?

The answer, I think, is that it snuck in. The patent actually
begins by talking about how long the button is pressed, and how longer
durations can invoke different functions. Then this: “Still another function
can be launched if the application button is pressed multiple times within a
short period of time, e.g., double click.”

Why would Microsoft even try? No, I don’t think they’re going to ‘license’
double click to you, and expect you to pay per use. I think many, if not most
of their, and other corporation’s patents, including this one, are defensive
measures. For any patent … if you can patent something, not
doing so puts you at risk of a competitor potentially doing so. And
that puts you at risk of legal action and expense. Microsoft could
argue that the way the system is set up, they must patent what they
can, or risk costly legal battles to fight off nuisance lawsuits when someone
else patents something else as mundane as double click.

The real villain in this scenario is the Patent Office and patent
law. There’s already a lot of talk that the PTO doesn’t have appropriately
trained resources to even properly evaluate software and related patent
applications. Letting something like double-click through, or if it really is
legitimate, having laws that allow for it to be so, make a mockery of “real”
inventions, and devalues the patent process. It forces corporations into a
patent race, rather than truly protecting the very thing Microsoft keeps
rallying around.


There’s nothing innovative about double click. Nothing that makes it
“patentable”. Not today.