Prior Art

Do the tablets in Kubricks 2001 movie constitute “prior art” to the iPad?

This question recently incited much heated discussion on Twitter (( I feel I should apologize to those of you who happen to follow both me and Heilemann on Twitter for having polluted your streams. )). What made this spike my interest in such a fashion is my love for science fiction, and in particular the works of Arthur C. Clarke. Many of his ideas specifically, came to fruition decades later. For example, in 1945 Arthur C. Clarke inadvertently invented satellites. He didn’t patent them; as he put it:

I’m often asked why I didn’t try to patent the idea of communications satellites. My answer is always, “A patent is really a license to be sued”.

Now Clarke merely described what would later become satellites. He didn’t build one, nor did he design how such a thing looks. And indeed satellites today come in all manner of configurations and designs, yet they are still, clearly, satellites.

These days Apple is busy suing Samsung for infringing on Apples look and feel patents with their Galaxy line of phones and tablets. Put simply, Galaxy S phones are too like the iPhone, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is too like the iPad. While the comparison photos in the suit filing appear to have been doctored (( For example, scaling down the Tab and opening the App drawer for the photo op instead of comparing the homescreen to the homescreen. )), I’m not going to argue that Samsung TouchWiz is inspired by Apples iOS (which it clearly is) (( In fact I loathe Android skins in general and would like nothing more than Apple forcing Samsung to improve, or better yet rid the world of TouchWiz )).

Focusing on what sparked this discussion — could the tablet devices seen in the 2001 movie constitute prior art for the iPad — I do think that’s fair to say and I’ll get to why I think that is. Whether or not they’re merely portable televisions, they are electronic devices and their form factor is certainly strikingly similar to that of the iPad. But is it prior art?

Prior art:

Prior art […], in most systems of patent law, constitutes all information that has been made available to the public in any form before a given date that might be relevant to a patent’s claims of originality. If an invention has been described in prior art, a patent on that invention is not valid.

To be specific, Apple is suing Samsung over 4 patents. Two of those are related to the iPhone form factor. One is related to how iOS works. The fourth patent is over the tablet form factor; here’s the illustration from the patent application:


If you explore the patent application itself (beware, TIFF file), you’ll note that no specific size is noted in the patent application. The tablet illustrated doesn’t necessarily have a 10 inch screen.

Samsung is in a tight spot. While I find it surprising (and disappointing) that these four patents were granted in the first place, they clearly appear to have been infringed upon. Were I in Samsungs shoes, (and if I were I’d never have released TouchWiz in the first place) I’d be doing everything I could to defend against this suit. Certainly if I was able to find prior art that invalidated any of the four patents in question, I’d look wherever I could, even in my old sci-fi DVD collection. In the case of that one patent Apple has on the tablet form factor, I do see why Samsung would try and invoke prior art on that (though I’m surprised they didn’t pick Picards tablet instead). You see, if Samsung can convince the judge that patent #4 is invalid — that the slabs shown in 2001 are reminiscent of the pencil sketch shown above — it would cut their woes by a fourth.

Samsung is not my favorite Android vendor. They’re not even my favorite hardware vendor. Perhaps it would be good for them to suffer a defeat at the hands of Apple.

But I do consider Arthur C. Clarkes description of a satellite to be prior art. I consider Larry Nivens description of a ring-world to be prior art to the ring shown in the Halo video game. And so, hearing Samsung cite Kubricks tablets as prior art to the iPad is not the dumbest thing I ever heard. Apples tablet is a wonderful combination of a well-designed user-experience and durable, delicious hardware. Even so, the form factor described in their tablet patent is not a unique snowflake, as countless sci-fi authors would have you know.