The patent system was designed in order to encourage and foster innovation. Of late, however, it has had the opposite effect. Design patents, in particular, have become the focus of much debate in light of the tug of war between Samsung and Apple in the past years. Microsoft is, of course, a long time player in this game but it has recently come under the spotlight when it sued Corel last week for infringing on a few design patents, including a graphical slider user interface.
December 18, Microsoft slapped Corel with a patent lawsuit, basically saying how its Home Office suite is infringing on several Microsoft design patents. It says that even WordPerfect's Help text explicitly says how it is simulating the Microsoft Word environment until the user gets accustomed to using Corel's equivalent software.
One of those design patents listed is D554,140, which is practically what is today known as a slider, a piece of UI that you can drag on a vertical or horizontal axis to set a value among a range of possible sequential values, like sizes or color. One thing that does set Microsoft's design apart is the presence of buttons on each end of the slider. Back in 2006, when Microsoft applied for that patent, that idea might have been nonobvious, which is a key criteria for granting a patent. That said, even back then there have already been implementations of that design.
But more than just the patent itself, which privacy watchdog EFF has crowned the "stupid patent of the month", the implications of Microsoft's patent case is what's more interesting, if not frightening. The way the patent system works today, if Microsoft wins the lawsuit, even for that single patent, it can demand damages amounting to the profits for all of Corel Home Office. Not just the part of the software that infringed or not even just the estimated value added to the software. All of it.
That almost incredulous consequence of a design patent lawsuit is exactly what Samsung is now contesting in the US Supreme Court. It, too, has been hit hard by a similar case, with Apple asking for more $548 million in damages over design patents. As design patents are mostly considered less concrete, even less functional, than utility patents, Samsung considers the way damages are calculated for design patents to be grossly outdated, if not absurd. And now, it might have found a new ally in Corel.