Patent Arrogance

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"Don't Be Evil"? Silicon Valley seems to be thinking a lot more about the unthinkable, or at least the distasteful.

The New York Times Digital Domain feature notes with tongue only partly in cheek that Apple has just applied for a patent on a system that would let consumers use electronic devices free in return for exposure to a stream of advertisements that would compel responses before the machines would resume functioning.

Would anyone have guessed that Apple, so widely revered, would seek patent protection of a gimmick not unlike one used to sell vacation timeshares? (Agree to attend the sales seminar and get a free weekend getaway!) Or could anyone have predicted that the Apple of 2009, a company with premium products, would file a patent application that could make it a latter-day descendant of Free PC and ZapMe, companies that in 1999 gave away PCs engineered to always display on-screen ads?

And there's a parallel move, disclosed in 2008 by The Times (London):

The Times has seen a patent application filed by [Microsoft] for a computer system that links workers to their computers via wireless sensors that measure their metabolism. The system would allow managers to monitor employees' performance by measuring their heart rate, body temperature, movement, facial expression and blood pressure. Unions said they fear that employees could be dismissed on the basis of a computer's assessment of their physiological state.

The obstacle to both applications is clearly not the "understaffed and underfunded" Patent Office.

Both ideas may be non-starters, at least as presented by the respective newspapers. The kinds of businesses that would be interested in buying the Microsoft system are already causing considerable physiological and mental distress to their employees. As long as the profits are rolling in, they don't need to pay Microsoft to tell them so. And Apple's mooted satanic pop-ups have their own structural flaw. Consumers seeking free equipment for agreeing to watch advertising have all shown that they hate paying money for anything. Not the best prospects for marketers except con artists, and why should  they pay when broadcasting spam is virtually free?

Of course, the applications could be staking out less offensive innovations in deliberately grandiose general language for maximum legal protection. Or they could be intended to thwart expected moves by competitors.

In fact, maybe both documents are really disinformation, designed to lure journalists (and bloggers) into speculation that obscures the companies' real intentions, like those World War II "invasion plans" designed to be discovered by the Wehrmacht.

But who knows whether Microsoft against Apple might some day turn into Big Brother versus Big Bother.

(Photo: Lars Plougmann/Flickr)

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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