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Why Apple's patents might show screens from third-party apps

This is a weird one. FutureTap was surprised to recognize one of their app's screens in a strange place: a recent Apple patent outlining how a possible travel application could work. The company wasn't quite sure what to do next -- as you can see above, it's a straightforward copy of the Where To? screen. Without any contact from Apple on the issue, FutureTap was puzzled -- the company calls Apple its "primary business partner." Having your app show up in an Apple patent filing

Not that Apple is above cherry-picking UI and functionality from third-party apps -- the iBooks interface was more or less borrowed whole from apps like Delicious Library and Classics, and further back there was the homage of Karelia Software's Watson reinterpreted as Apple's revision to Sherlock. In those cases, both developers just sort of shrugged, felt flattered, and let it go. That's not the situation here -- these screenshots probably aren't illustrations of a product Apple wants to make, they're explanations of how the patent would work.

As Engadget's Nilay Patel clarifies for us (so nice to have an attorney around), not only is this merely a patent application (which could possibly still be denied), but Apple isn't trying to lay claim to the actual screenshot; rather the company is using an example application which illustrates the to-be-patented functionality (in the case of Where To?, the ability of an iPhone to auto-detect when a user has been traveling). As Nilay puts it:
...the only operative parts of a patent are the claims -- not the drawings, and not the description, which are technically known as the "specification." (We've now repeated this basic axiom of patent interpretation so many times we're considering making T-shirts.) The only reason the drawings and description are there is to explain the claimed invention in sufficient detail so that someone else can make it. Remember, patents are a trade: in order to get protection, you have to give up the full details of how your invention works. (The other option is to keep your invention a trade secret, but then you can't prevent anyone else from figuring it out and using it if it gets out.) Bottom line? If it's not in the claims, it's not in the patent.
We'll have to see what FutureTap does -- the company might request that Apple remove the Where To? screenshot from the patent application, but at this point it's not clear that Apple wants to lay claim to that particular app. What is clear is that Apple could have avoided a lot of hassle and furor if it had simply sent FutureTap an email asking to use a screenshot in a patent filing. In the meantime, FutureTap execs are huddled with their lawyers, trying to make sure they understand what's going on.

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Apple iPhone

This is a weird one. FutureTap was surprised to recognize one of their app's screens in a strange place: a recent Apple patent outlining...