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.