The United States Patent Office recently awarded patent #6,727,830 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.