Microsoft has filed suit against Barnes & Noble, creators of the Nook and Nook Color e-readers, as well as the manufacturers of those devices. The companies allegedly infringe on a number of patents filed between 1998 and 2005, generally applying to UI elements associated with browsing and downloading information. Like many patents from that period (for example those cited by Paul Allen in last year’s omnibus suit) these are quite broad in their specificity, claiming methods that seem now to be no-brainer approaches to the task described. The larger question is, as before, is whether these patents are legitimately unique intellectual property — but as before, the larger question is being deferred for now, and in the mean time, we’re suing each other over the placement of download status bars.
Microsoft’s line is that Barnes & Noble, unlike game HTC, Amazon, and others, has failed to license these methods (yet uses them anyway, bold as brass), and now faces stern reprimand.
For your convenience, I’ve collected the patents here:
- 5,889,522: System provided child window controls
- 5,778,372: Remote retrieval and display management of electronic document with incorporated images
- 6,339,780: Loading status in a hypermedia browser having a limited available display area
- 6,891,551: Selection handles in editing electronic documents
- 6,957,233: Method and apparatus for capturing and rendering annotations for non-modifiable electronic content
Interestingly, Microsoft isn’t just suing Barnes & Noble, captain of the great ship Nook, but also Foxconn and Inventec, which comprise the engine room — and have as little to do with UI optimization as a engine stoker does with the captain’s table (and with that, the nautical metaphor overstays its welcome). It may be just to make those huge manufacturing entities aware of who they are dealing with, and make sure they are working to, legally speaking, a high standard.
I’m not going to bother taking a close look at the patents; I’m not a lawyer, for one thing, but also, the patent world isn’t really something navigable by common sense alone. Like copyright, privacy, and every other area being reinvented by the internet, it has long become a playground for lawyers, who build strange labyrinths for themselves, as oblivious to users as users are to them.
It’s doubtful that the Nook devices will be pulled from shelves any time soon, if at all; Microsoft has a lot of explaining to do before any judge (excepting the disturbingly permissive one in charge of Sony’s case against Geohot) will grant a major step like that. Let’s hope those Nook Colors have been selling as well as some have said, because whether B&N fights it or not, this looks like it could get expensive.
Update: Google, who is threatened indirectly by these patents, has this to say regarding the action: “Sweeping software patent claims like Microsoft’s threaten innovation. While we are not a party to this lawsuit, we stand behind the Android platform and the partners who have helped us to develop it.”