Apple Seeks Patents on Travel, Hotel and Fashion Apps

Figure 8A from US Patent Application 20100190510

Earlier this week Apple, Inc. had three patent application publish on what most would consider strange, overbroad and/or dubious inventions.  I came across these patent applications thanks to CNET (via Unwired View), and they relate to a method of using a smartphone or other portable electronic device to access travel services (US Patent Application 20100190510), a method of using a smartphone or other portable electronic device to access hotel services ( US Patent Application 20100191551) and a method for providing enhanced access to high fashion using a smartphone or other portable electronic device (US Patent Application 20100191578).

The patents largely follow the same formula, the drawings are remarkably similar, and all relate back to provisional patents filed at the end of January 2009. Many will ridicule these patent applications, and given that obviousness is now about common sense thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in KSR v. Teleflex I think rightly so. I find it hard to believe that there would not be prior art located that dates back to before January 2009 that will present massive difficulties for Apple.

Rather than go through each of these patents with detail, allow me to pick one. Staying well clear of the fashion patent because I don’t want to get in over my head, that means I need to select from an automatic notification of an airplane arrival or a method of configuring a hotel room based on user preferences. As fun as the hotel thing sounds an automatic arrival notification seems more practical to me, although probably less patentable.

Systems and methods for accessing travel services using a portable electronic device
US Patent Application 20100190510
Filed December 18, 2009
Published July 29, 2010

This patent application seems to relate to a method and associated system, which is not described in any real detail that I can see, which would allow a user of a portable electronic device to make airline reservations, change airline reservations and engage in other pre-flight and post-flight activities, or at least that is what is disclosed in the specification.  Upon digging deeper there is more to the story, although I am not sure it is enough to warrant the issuance of broad and/or useful patent claims.

The Abstract of the Patent explains:

This is directed to systems and methods for integrating travel services in a single application available to a portable electronic device. Using the single application, a user can access and control travel services before arriving at the initial location of travel, on arriving at the initial location of travel, during travel, and after travel. Such services can include, for example, reserving a travel itinerary, checking-in remotely for a reservation, providing airport information, providing for social networking, obtaining dining or entertainment during travel, controlling and requesting cabin services, providing arrival notifications to third parties, providing destination location information, and the like.

The Summary of the Invention summarizes the invention in this way:

The electronic device may include an integrated application operative to interface with a travel system to provide access to different services provided by a travel service provider (e.g., an airline, railroad company, bus company, etc.). For example, the integrated application can connect to an airline registration system to allow a user to check-in remotely (e.g., from a taxi on the way to the airport). As another example, the integrated application can provide an arrival notification of a user’s arrival to a third party upon the user’s arrival at a destination (e.g., when the user’s airplane lands). As another example, the integrated application can allow the user to access services available to airline customers, such as airport gate services (e.g., preferred guest lounge and available restaurant options), in-flight services (e.g., in-flight dining and entertainment options), or other services for enhancing a user’s airline experience.

The broadest claim in the patent, which seems to be exceptionally broad, is:

A method comprising: determining a user is scheduled to travel to a destination on a current date; determining a portable electronic device in possession by the user is powered off; determining the user arrived at the destination by detecting that the portable electronic device has been powered back on; and transmitting an arrival notification of the arrival of the user to at least one third party recipient.

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand what is going on here. The disclosure in the patent application is exceptionally broad, but the claims presented are far more narrow. Still, is the use of a portable electronic device to automatically send a message upon arrival going to be patentable? One would have to do a patent search to be sure, but if I were to make an educated guess I would have to say that the patent examiner is going to quite easily find references that will be able to get behind the provisional priority date of January 27, 2009. What that means in lay terms is I suspect there is going to be tons of prior art to reject what looks like an extraordinarily broad claim.

One of the more curious things associated with this patent isn’t that it has broad claims. All patents have broad claims and it is the name of the game to ask for claims that are as broad as possible and then have the patent examiner chip away and grant far less, assuming a patent on any claims can be obtained. Nevertheless, notice how the claims of the patent seem to limit themselves to a portable electronic device. The Detailed Description discusses portable electronic devices, but largely discusses simply an “electronic device.” For example, the Detailed Description explains:

Electronic device 100 can include any suitable type of electronic device. For example, electronic device 100 can include a portable electronic device that the user may hold in his or her hand, such as a digital media player (e.g., an iPod™ made available by Apple Inc. of Cupertino, Calif.), a personal e-mail device (e.g., a Blackberry™ made available by Research in Motion of Waterloo, Ontario), a personal data assistant (“PDA”), a cellular telephone, a handheld gaming device, and a digital camera. As another example, electronic device 100 can include a larger portable electronic device, such as a laptop computer. As yet another example, electronic device 100 can include a substantially fixed electronic device, such as a desktop computer. (emphasis added)

Is Apple trying to say that the traveler who is going to have the automatic arrival message sent will be lugging a desktop computer with them, which they will somehow manage to plug in and turn on as the airplane is taxiing to the gate?  Maybe the traveler will plug in the desktop computer and hook up the monitor after de-planing and entering the terminal.  Rather silly if you ask me.  Perhaps equally silly is that an application filed after the iPhone was available didn’t specifically mention the iPhone as an example of a portable electronic device but did mention the competing Blackberry.

What is going on here?  Well, I would have to say this is not the finest Apple patent application I have ever read.  It is good enough and will get the job done, assuming there is anything here that can be allowed by a patent examiner.  I also want to be careful here and not say anything negative about the attorneys and act like this is an attorney problem.  This particular application is not the best Apple patent application I have seen, but that likely is an Apple issue not an attorney issue.

Frequently large companies will file patent applications on all kinds of different inventions, and still will have to pick and choose which ones are deserving of the cost and time associated with trying to obtain a patent.  Many companies will divide the inventions they want to pursue into 2 or 3 groups, perhaps an A list, a B list and a C list.  The A list will be what are perceived to be the crown jewels or very strategically relevant.  No expense is spared on A list patents because they are at the foundation of the company.  Conversely, the C list are those that would be nice to get for one reason or another, perhaps to make the inventors happy, perhaps to just pump numbers so you can claim to have a larger patent portfolio than is really useful, or any number of other reasons. For C list inventions little money is spent on the applications and on prosecuting them.  The B list inventions/applications lie somewhere in between.  So while many will poke fun at this patent application, and rightly so for at least several reasons, one should be careful giving the lawyers the bad rap.

Now, is Apple likely to obtain a patent on this invention?  Well, the answer is yes if they really want one.  This truth will undoubtedly infuriate many, but it is just the truth.  The disclosure is written to have so many different aspects of the invention articulated.  That means that if Apple wants a narrow patent they can layer on specifics after specifics and at some point the invention will be different (satisfying the novelty requirement of 35 USC 102) and not obvious in light of the prior art (satisfying the nonobviousness requirement of 35 USC 103).  Taking whatever narrow claims one can get is a common ploy when dealing with C list patents or those that are not strategically relevant.

It is also common to write a very broad disclosure that makes it seem that the invention is very basic and fundamental, like using a smartphone for making airline reservations.  But notice that the claims start with the automatic transmission of an arrival notice.  That is very much more narrow than some of what is suggested.  That is why it is essential to look at the claims to tell what the invention really is.

Truthfully, I just overstated things a little.  It is always possible to add claims and seek broader claims as long as this application or a related application is still pending at the Patent Office.  So it is sometimes difficult to see where a patent may go simply by reading a pending patent application.  Nevertheless, when dealing with an issued patent it is impossible to understand the invention without reading and dissecting the claims.  Every limitation matters and, in fact, in order for there to ever be infringement each and every specific limitation or nuance contained in a claim must be included in the accused infringing device.

Most of the time those that complain about the patent system read the title, or look at the pictures.  Rarely do they really dig deep into the patent, but even when they do they let the broadness of the disclosure in the specification dictate their understanding of what the invention is.  For patent purposes, however, there is “the invention” and there is “the claimed invention.”  The grandiose invention is described in the specification, but that does not mean the owner of the patent can prevent others from making, using or selling what is in the specification.  The exclusive rights attach to the claimed invention, which is another way of saying that the claims are the only part of the patent that define the exclusive right.

Confusing stuff I know, and in this case probably more information than you really wanted to know.  But we will need to hold judgment on whether this is really a stupid, crazy invention until we see what, if anything, issues in a patent.  In the meantime, however, be my guest and make light of the fact that Apple is seeking a patent on a disclosure that seems almost comically broad in places.


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Join the Discussion

6 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for The Mad Hatter]
    The Mad Hatter
    August 2, 2010 09:35 am

    Fascinating – and yes, I’m glad that you didn’t choose to evaluate the high fashion patent!

    Seriously though, the arrival patent is disturbing. In effect it appears that Apple hasn’t invented anything, other than a method of filing a patent application so that even though there is no invention, a patent will be issued… And this brings the patent system into disrepute. That the USPTO is unable to control such gaming of the system reflects badly on the USPTO, and the United States Government as a whole.

    Yeah, I like Apple. I have an IPhone. I have an IPad. I have an IMac. And I have a MacBook Pro. I paid a bit more, but I’ve got well built hardware and software that performs really well, and makes Microsoft looks like a sick puppy.

    But any company that attempts to game the system in this way doesn’t deserve my support.


  • [Avatar for antonio medina]
    antonio medina
    August 1, 2010 03:11 am

    Patents on methods are the gift that keeps on giving, it is well known that right now major corporations are immersed VERY COSTLY patent wars. Why? Because we allowed this to happen not to long ago in USA. Right know innovation is paying the price, you need an army of lawyers to invent anything in software, and an army of patent lawyers.

  • [Avatar for Scott Dunn]
    Scott Dunn
    August 1, 2010 02:43 am

    Thanks for explaining this patent application, Gene. As you have noted, the disclosures and the claims are very broad. With broadly worded claims, the suggestion comes to mind that any method that reaches the claim could be covered by the patent. The disclosures should identify the method, the claims identify what the invention does. So I have a question for you. Can a patent claim be made to cover every method of achieving the claims?

    For example, Apple is claiming rights to any software application that could reach the claims listed in the patent, in this case, that would be an automated arrival notice. There are thousands of ways this could be done in terms of software code and hardware choices. Does the patent cover every possible method of producing an automated notification sent to a mobile device?

    If so, wouldn’t you agree that this is a patent on an idea rather than an invention? If such a patent were granted, would this really increase innovation? (I know, a totally different question, but worth asking)

    What do you think?

  • [Avatar for Steve Weller]
    Steve Weller
    July 31, 2010 11:25 am

    These are probably defensive patents with narrow claims that are improvements to other patents. Anyone using the original patents will find them lacking (because practically-speaking the inventions are crap) and will need the improvements claimed by Apple. This gives Apple the opportunity to license, control, or simply stay informed as to developments in that area.

  • [Avatar for Michael]
    July 31, 2010 09:36 am

    It seems to me that a very broad disclosure in a case where so many applications appear so quickly would be a good thing for Apple. Wouldn’t that allow Apple to see what direction the apps are heading and amend claims to more specifically cover them? As long as there is sufficient support found in the disclosure for a broad range of ideas, can’t the details be put in place as the market develops either to specifically cover a popular app to gain royalties, to allow plenty of support to write a claim for a later interference, or at the very least to put in place a body of prior art that will prevent somebody else from filing narrower claims to find niches for inventive applications? Even if only very narrow claims eventually issue to Apple, it would appear to be much more difficult for anybody else to establish claims at all.

  • [Avatar for Arthur Dent]
    Arthur Dent
    July 31, 2010 08:33 am

    “The disclosure is written to have so many different aspects of the invention articulated. That means that if Apple wants a narrow patent they can layer on specifics after specifics and at some point the invention will be different…”

    The following rant is a bit off-topic, but these Apple applications can provide an illustrative entry-point into the discussion of the increasing volume of RCE filings.

    Herein lies the all-too-common tension for the examiner who will examine this case. According to the tenants of compact prosecution, the examiner is required to search the entire disclosed invention, which in this case (like so many others), is perhaps orders of magnitude broader than the claimed invention. In order to satisfy production quotas, the examiner will most likely apply art that covers the broadest disclosed embodiment, including the claims (hopefully), while leaving some of the myriad disclosed (but not claimed) embodiments, unsearched. Apple will likely respond by adding features from one of those disclosed (but previously unclaimed) embodiments, which, for practical reasons, the examiner was unable to search, thereby overcoming the initial art rejections. The examiner will now search the newly-claimed features, make the next action final (“the new rejections are necessitated by applicant’s amendments”), and Apple will file an RCE adding yet another previously unclaimed (and likely unsearched) feature (i.e. the “layer[ing] on specifics after specifics” that Gene mentions).

    From the (admittedly narrow) perspective of this humble examiner, the above scenario is a leading cause for the continued rise in RCE filings, even as the Office attempts to dis-incentivize such filings. To those who prepare and file applications such as these, do you see the above scenario as a failure of the Office to properly examine the application the first time around? Or does the applicant share the responsibility of writing an initial set of claims that is at least reasonably commensurate in scope with the specification (i.e. by not writing claims that are orders of magnitude narrower than the disclosed embodiments)?

    One wonders what percentage of RCE filings are caused by these so-called “fishing expeditions.” Also, one wonders if the “we invented whatever the examiner couldn’t find” approach really in the best interest of the patent system as a whole. (A rhetorical question of course, but one likely at the root of much of the animosity heaved at the patent system in recent years.) Anecdotally, I find that the applications with the shortest overall prosecution time are those filed with an initial set of claims roughly equivalent to the disclosed embodiments in the specification, while the fishing expeditions tend to drag for years and years, and the backlog continues to grow. So it goes.