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Laws protecting the intellectual property rights of inventive individuals and companies are a good thing, but if you don't think there's a problem with the patent system, an Apple patent published yesterday by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) just might convince you otherwise.

Bearing the title Systems and Methods for Accessing Personalized Fitness Services Using a Portable Electronic Device, Apple's application seeks to patent an application that, amongst other things:

  • Introduces a potential customer to a local fitness center via a "free pass."
  • Incents a potential customer to sign up for the fitness center using "membership promotion[s] and an affiliate offer[s]."
  • Transmits "news, updates, daily promotions, and daily activities" to members and prospective members.
  • Recommends workout buddies based on social network profiles and user-supplied criteria.
  • Upsells personal training sessions.
  • Tracks workout goals and accomplishments.
  • Provides notifications, content and commercial promotions designed to encourage members to "re-energize" and return to the fitness center.

Cool? Perhaps. Novel? Not at all.

Essentially, Apple seeks to patent an app that does things plenty of other websites and apps already do. Now is Apple capable of building a better user experience than the other players in this space?

Quite possibly, but that doesn't mean combining a bunch of existing functionalities into a single app in manner that is not unobvious constitutes an invention that is patentable. If that's all it takes, just about any idea for a website or app could patented.

Unfortunately, that's essentially what's happening. Patent trolls are only proliferating due to the inability of the USPTO to apply some common sense to the patent application review process, and legitimate companies are increasingly building massive portfolios of seemingly indefensible patents in an effort to protect themselves against said patent trolls.

Perhaps most worrying, however, are patent applications like Apple's, which are so patently absurd that they'd be laughable if they weren't real. Even if its application isn't approved, the mere fact that Apple -- a company with a market cap approaching $320 billion  -- would seek to patent a little fitness app says a lot.

Companies like Apple should know better, but sadly, until the USPTO gets into shape, true innovators everywhere will be held down by the weight of a system that is clearly very, very broken.

Patricio Robles

Published 29 April, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (7)

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Joe

Your report is what's absurd. A pure rant. Apple has hardware and creates apps for its users to enjoy. In this case they're working with Nike and others to create an app that will have Apple hardware to specifically work with gym equipment hardware and communicate the users stats to a database to display on charts and so forth. Apple is working with gym owners to add features that they want in a program if they're to promote it in their gyms. This is likely one patent of a cluster of them pertaining to this one project. Apple has the right to protect this system and to ensure that third parties can't sue them for stealing thier technology. So this is the way the system works and Apple plays within the rules. Your rant is simply garbage and you're one of a gang of patent system haters who would ultimately love to steal everyones IP for your pleasure. Grow up, move on and calm down.

over 5 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Joe,

"In this case they're working with Nike and others to create an app that will have Apple hardware to specifically work with gym equipment hardware and communicate the users stats to a database to display on charts and so forth."

That's all fine and dandy, but apparently you didn't actually take the time to read Apple's patent application because that's not what Apple is trying to patent. Apple is trying to patent a "system" that combines basic functionality already existing in numerous apps, and which employs established and widely used digital business models.

When you say that "Apple has the right to protect this system and to ensure that third parties can't sue them for stealing thier [sic] technology," you seem to confuse intellectual property rights. Companies protect application code through copyright, but patent is supposed to be reserved for "novel" and "non-obvious" inventions.

By the way, your comment infringes upon my patent, Systems and Methods for Telling Others to Calm Down, issued in 2005. Please contact me to discuss licensing terms.

over 5 years ago

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Joe

The patent abstract is clear:

Methods, systems, articles of manufacture, and apparatus for causing a computer system such as a media device to perform operations may include receiving input from the user selecting a media type category, identifying media content items within the selected media category that the user has previously selected for presentation, prioritizing the identified media content items based on a predetermined set of rules, and presenting to the user a menu of at least some of the identified media content items in an order based on a result of the prioritization.

Surprise. Your definition of a patent is extraordinarily narrow. Systems are patentable if connected with Systems, servers etc.

Here's a temporry link to patent 20110099519
http://appft1.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PG01&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=%2220110099519%22.PGNR.&OS=DN/20110099519&RS=DN/20110099519

The patent states that it "claims priority from U.S. Provisional Application No. 61/255,390." So in reality, the framework has already been aproved which kills your position hands down. End of discussion. You don't know what you're talking about.

Of course it's your site and you'll always have the last word. But for sure you've wasted my time and others who have read this rant.

I'm sure that you're a nice guy Patricio. It's not personal, it's just what it is: a "consultancy" type of hyped of work based on fluff thinking. Chow.

over 5 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Joe,

I hate to break it to you, but the patent you refer to is not the patent application this post addresses. Please see my patent for System and Method for Reading an Article Accurately.

Notwithstanding the fact that you're arguing about a patent that was not discussed in my post, your comment that "Systems are patentable if connected with Systems, servers etc." is quite baffling. There are tests the courts have established for determining whether something is patentable, and none of them says that a system is patentable simply because it is connected with other systems. By that standard, I could patent the "method" of running a website on a application server and a database on another server. I would suggest you look at In re Bilski if you're interested in the actual tests.

Finally, I would again point out that the USPTO has approved a patent for swinging on a swing. Patents are frequently invalidated (see http://www.zdnet.com/blog/open-source/red-hat-novell-win-verdict-in-linux-patent-infringement-case/6388). The problem is that legitimate businesses and innovators have to spend huge sums of money defending themselves against patent infringement suits that involve patents that should have been recognized as invalid before they were issued.

over 5 years ago

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Joe

Yes Patricio, the patent is 20110098156. Good to know that your awake.

I realize that Europe holds a higher bar for patents. But the patent is American. Many said Apple would never recieve patents for the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, multitouch - and of course they did. You're a typical naysayer and hater of the American patent system. Fair enough. But at the end of day, they'll get their patent approved whether you like it or not. History is on Apple's side, Patricio, whether you like it or not.

over 5 years ago

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Martin

I have been working in the space of mobile apps linked to motion sensors to measure training performance for some time, ie what apple is trying to patent is already in the public domain!
So they cannot be granted a patent for something they claim to be unique, even if they claim they are uniquely combining features in a new way, because they are not.
I am not currently using an iPhone for this technology but that should not be a reason to allow them to have a patent.

over 5 years ago

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Tom Atkinson

This post is spot on. This and the ability to patent living organisms is just plain wrong, and leading to some serious pain in the world.

Also, Joe, pointing to other just as sucky software patents *that never should have been granted in the first place either* does not justify this horrendous insult to IP.

Pat's right: it's a real shame that patents are being used for what copyright should be. Hopefully something will change one day with the USPTO.

over 5 years ago

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