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OK, everybody, it's patent time. Get your coffee. And preferably, keep sharp objects out of arm's reach.

As you may have heard by now, Apple now has a patent on touchscreen maps that was granted just a few days ago. The patent in question (which we'll call the '033 patent) can be found here. It's a real page-turner. I'm kidding, no it's not - it's a patent. It's about as exciting as a treatise on the effects of the 18th century transatlantic textile trade on horse carriage upholstery.

Of course, being that this patent has pictures of maps and talks generally about Apple revolutionizing the "inflexible ... time consuming ... frustrating" electronic mapping interfaces of the time, the tech world has been absolutely abuzz with news of its granting. This is the Apple map patent that could send Android back to the stone age!

Not so fast there, kids - pretty pictures and lofty statements of inventiveness and breakthroughs aside, this is a pretty specific patent on a maps touch interface. Let's run through it, step by step. And, more importantly, figure out if this is something Google should really be sweating.

Step 1: Finger Dragging

I'm going to paste in the language from the patent's only* independent claim (*it is repeated in various other independent forms for reasons not worth getting into here, but is substantially identical), and will then parse out the meaning of that language, generally, for you. The patent is broken up into three "gestures," the first of which is quite simple. If this was the entirety of the claim, everybody would be totally screwed.

1. A method, comprising: at a computing device with a touch screen display: detecting a single finger gesture on a marker on a digital map on the touch screen display

in response to determining that the single finger gesture moves a finger contact area more than a first predetermined distance in a first predetermined time when a finger in the single finger gesture initially touches the touch screen display

moving the digital map on the touch screen display in accordance with the movement of the single finger gesture

rather than displaying a user-selectable region for obtaining information associated with the marker on the touch screen display or moving the marker on the digital map in accordance with the single finger gesture

I've highlighted the part you need to focus in on. The rough translation here is this: you put your finger on a touch screen when the Maps app is open, you drag it, and even if you're touching a location flag, the map still moves and tracks with your finger. Magical. Hopefully everyone can make do without an illustration on this one.

Like I said, if this was the entirety of the concept Apple was patenting, pretty much everybody making mobile maps apps would be, to use the technical term, hosed. Everything would infringe - Bing, Nokia, Google, whatever. But remember: patents don't work this way. Claims, the individual parts of a patent that can be accused as infringed (you cannot "infringe a patent" - you infringe a claim [or claims] in a patent), must be infringed in their entirety in order to support a finding of infringement.

Apple would have made this entire first portion an independent claim if it could have, because that would have made for an insanely powerful patent. But it couldn't - it had to limit it with additional functionality that described Apple's specific implementation of a touch-based maps interface. With that, let's move to part two.

Step 2: Place Markers

This next portion of the claim is also pretty broad. Take a look, then head below for the explanation:

in response to determining that the single finger gesture is a single tap gesture that moves the finger contact area less than a second predetermined distance and lasts less than a second predetermined time, displaying the user-selectable region

which when selected initiates display of an interface for obtaining information associated with the marker on the touch screen display

rather than moving the digital map on the touch screen display or moving the marker on the digital map in accordance with the single finger gesture

So, the translation is basically this: you have a little icon "place marker" on your map indicating the location of... something, and you tap it, and then it gives you information about that place. Revolutionarizing! And yes, that's what Google Maps does, too.

But, the language here rather specifically says "... rather than moving the digital map" - which is sort of tricky, if you've ever really paid close attention to how Google Maps behaves. If you tap on a place marker* (*not a search result marker, mind you) near the edge of the visible map area, the map does move to bring more of the marker into view in relation to its location. Apple's claim rather specifically says this gesture does not move the digital map.

Screenshot_2012-10-31-13-17-56 Screenshot_2012-10-31-13-18-09

Search "marker" vs. zoom-sensitive label, respectively.

However, Apple's use of "marker" may be the deciding factor here. While the landmarks and labeled businesses that show up in Google Maps regardless of whether you searched for them behave in the way I describe  - by moving the map if tapped near the edge of the display - search result markers do not (see distinction above). This all comes down to how "marker" is defined in the patent. Is the little coffee cup and accompanying text that appears in Google Maps for local business and parks such a "marker?" That's kind of hard to say - markers for search results are persistent at any zoom, as are Apple's pins, whereas the location labels are zoom-sensitive.

It's entirely possible this could be a distinction without a difference, too, and patent law does have something for that called "the doctrine of equivalents," whereby the allegedly infringing product is so substantially similar to the patented invention that a minor distinction (here, slightly moving the map in some limited circumstances) doesn't bar a finding of infringement. I'd leave that to a judge.

Thankfully, the final part of Apple's claim is far more easily distinguished from Google Maps than this one.

Step 3: Custom Markers

The final part of Apple's claim has to do with a long-press gesture.

and in response to determining that the single finger gesture includes a substantially stationary contact, the substantially stationary contact moving the finger contact area less than a third predetermined distance and lasting more than the second predetermined time

followed by translation of the finger contact area on the touch screen display after the second predetermined time ends,

moving the marker on the digital map in accordance with movement of the single finger gesture, rather than moving the digital map on the touch screen display or displaying the user-selectable region for obtaining information associated with the marker on the touch screen display.

This describes a functionality in iOS that, if you've never used it, you're probably not familiar with. iOS Maps works with "pin" markers that you can create and use to bookmark locations, or for various other purpose. Like real map pins (ugh, skeuomorphism), you can "unpin" them and put them somewhere else. Here's Apple's depiction of this feature from the patent:


You do this by long pressing on a pin, and then dragging it to a new location. There is no comparable feature in Google Maps. You can favorite places by "starring" them in Google Maps after a long press, after going into the location menu, but you can't move them. And long-pressing a marker in Google maps doesn't do anything - it just loads the location dialog for the address you're closest to. It totally ignores markers and labels. Here's what happens when you try to long press a marker on Google Maps:


And remember, if you're going to say something infringes a claim, it has to infringe every part of the claim. This claim is the only independent one (again, with independent "copies" because of the way software patents work) in the patent. All the other claims are dependent, meaning they all include the claims from this original independent one by default - if you don't infringe the independent claim, you can't infringe any claims that are dependent on it.


It seems it's very likely that some people who fervently monitor Apple's every patent filing got a little ahead of themselves. This patent isn't particularly broad, it almost certainly isn't infringed by Google Maps, and has very clearly been the victim of some rather aggressive claim narrowing (reducing the broadness of the patent). It seems extremely plausible that each of these "steps" I've described that are part of the claim were originally claims in their own right, and that Apple was forced to consolidate them into a single claim to make the patent viable.

While alone these three "steps" may have already appeared in prior art, combining all of them into a single application apparently was deemed a big enough inventive step forward to be worthy of patenting. How valuable that patent is in reality, though, is clearly up for debate.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • mofo

    "Finger Dragging" patent is a joke, and the person who approved that it is a tool. This makes no sense since Google Maps has been around since forever.

    This is where the corruption come in where the USPTO change their system to first to file, instead of first to invent.

    • marcusmaximus04

      Did you read the article at all?

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

      Well, personally, I suggest reading past the 3rd paragraph before commenting on something. But hey, maybe you just like living life on the edge.

      • Gav456

        "Living life on the edge" - classic!

      • Greyhame

        "You have 4, I suggest you hit, sir."

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

          Danger is my middle name.

  • http://twitter.com/danlocker Daniel Locker

    Wish Google would start patenting every little idea they have. Maybe give Apple a taste of their own medicine.

    • PhilNelwyn

      They have started.
      I think that Google won't attack though, their patents are defensive ammunition, deterrent force...

      • LiamBryant

        "Don't be evil," right?

    • http://www.facebook.com/vivecuervo7 Isaac Dedini

      I'd like to see them screw Apple out of using the notification bar

      • duplissi

        pretty sure google filed a patent for that in 08 or 09 but havent been granted it.

        • flosserelli

          Obviously Google is not paying off the right people.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667020551 Jose Torres

      Google has patented things and all but they don't seem to be the sort who would play Apple's grab-and-lock-it-up game. It doesn't seem to be the intent of that company, or at least not like Apple has done.

    • http://jeremyperez.com Jeremy

      While I would love this to happen, I don't think we will ever see Google take Apple to court. It is easier for Google to out innovate Apple than to waste time and money suing them.

  • Blaine Magee

    My word...how is this a patent in the first place? I still don't understand how Apple get's these.

    • Jay

      $ $ $ $

    • http://www.facebook.com/vivecuervo7 Isaac Dedini


  • p.p


  • http://twitter.com/cabbieBot cabbieBot

    Solid post.

  • Hilman_ca

    Great write up David.

  • Nitin

    Google has nothing to worry about at all. Not only are there the facts you have mentioned but also the fact that Google Maps for mobile has been around since 2006 and this patent was filed for in 2008. This means that even if Apple decides to sue Google on anything from this patent Google can just reference their own previous art so their should be no problem at all. The only problem that can arise is if something in the patent was added to Google Maps after
    June 20, 2008. Then Apple could try to sue for those features unless Google can reference something else like Nokia/Ovi maps which debuted in 2001.

  • nsnsmj

    Nice write-up. I know you say Google shouldn't have anything to worry about, but I still find it quite bad that things like this can actually be patented.

    • Greyhame

      My thoughts exactly. Unfortunately, I know nothing of patent law. The dependent claims seem to be pulled directly from Google Maps, but I have no idea what the history is of GMaps and this patent filing.

  • Tim Hayes

    Why in figure 10a does it show that much level of detail? Apple maps in no way shows that much detail.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

      The figure explains, in steps, what happens when certain actions are taken (there's an accompanying description), and so it has to show almost everything all at once - the patent office does not like having a million figures to thumb through flip-book style. So no, this isn't representative of how Apple's map app would look at any given moment, but rather a consolidation of many possible views.

      • Tim Hayes

        Sorry I forgot to add /s

        But you're reply is appreciated.

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

          Your joke


          My head


    • mechapathy

      lol I get it.

  • Gav456

    After reading the whole thing, it seems apparent that this can't be used against Google... it is, however, still sucky that Apple are continually granted patents/claims thereof, for ideas with obvious prior art.

    • Greyhame

      And ideas that are blatantly obvious. "Oops, I pressed the wrong location, I'm just gonna move that point over here instead." That seems like a completely obvious step for me. But hey, what the hell do I know.

    • bos

      I still can't figure out how they managed to blatantly rip off Microsoft's grid of icons on a homescreen, patent it, and then use that bogus patent to prosecute Android phone manufacturers. Ditto for the infamous shape they stole from LG.

  • Vicky

    Awesome, in-depth analysis of what is actually going on in this patent. I'll be going to law school next year, and every post you do makes me want to study IP more and more!

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

      Good luck. I'll try not to depress you by describing my own law school experience, haha.

    • Tomi Golob

      Hey me too! :)

  • Zenon Tigerpaw

    Can Apple just not have any patents period?

  • donrhummy

    Why is this even patentable? Nothing in that patent passes the "non-obviousness" rule. "[the] nonobviousness principle asks whether the invention is an adequate distance beyond or above the state of the art."

    "One of the main requirements of patentability is that the invention being patented is not obvious, meaning that a "person having ordinary skill in the art" would not know how to solve the problem at which the invention is directed by using exactly the same mechanism."


    • Jon Garrett

      Courts around the world would agree with you unless those courts are in Germany or the US.

    • marcusmaximus04

      No *part* of that claim needs to be non-obvious, the claim as a whole does. In this case, it's non-obvious enough that nobody else has done this, or shown any indication of ever doing this.

      • Joshua Barta

        Nope. Replace "single-finger-gesture" with "click" or "click and drag" and you have functionality that has existed in just about every piece of desktop or browser-based mapping software created in the past decade. There is nothing about this that goes beyond adapting existing functionality to a new UI, and anyone with [strike]half a brain[/stike] ordinary skill in the art would be able to see this.

      • donrhummy

        That's not what non-obviousness means. It doesn't mean no one else thought of it or implemented it. It means the solution is very hard and would not be apparent to someone of average skill in the field:

        "meaning that a "person having ordinary skill in the art" would not know how to solve the problem at which the invention is directed by using exactly the same mechanism"

        - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inventive_step_and_non-obviousness#United_States

    • Joshua Barta

      This. A thousand times, this. As someone who has worked in the software industry for over 10 years, I can confidently say that adapting a feature from an existing, mouse-based program to work on a touchscreen (or, more generally, from one type of interface to another) is as obvious as it gets. I truly, sincerely hope that a court precedent is set clearly establishing this fact.

      • PhilNelwyn

        "As someone who has worked in the software industry for over 10 years," you should have understood that Google Maps don't do that.
        Sounds like you didn't read the article, or please show me how you move a marker on Google Maps...

        • Joshua Barta

          While the functionality described in the "Finger Dragging" and "Place Markers" sections is straightforward. I should point out that "Custom Markers" do exist in the desktop version of Google Maps (as well as others, such as MapQuest) In Google Maps, you can add a placemark via the following process: right click somewhere > What's Here? > Save To Map > View Map, move pins as desired. Note that if one clicks the placemark and drags it, the placemark is what is moved- not the map itself.

          • marcusmaximus04

            Tried that suggestion out, can't for the life of me get the pin to move...

          • PhilNelwyn

            Yeah, I remembered that just after posting my comment and apparently didn't delete it fast enough. ;)

    • http://profiles.google.com/dan.doel Dan Doel

      I have a friend who used to examine patents. And he's remarked before that, as an examiner, you can't just say, "that's obvious." It actually requires quite a bit of work, citations, etc. on the part of the examiner demonstrating its obviousness, or that there is prior art.

      So, even if you think the patent is obvious, it might be quite challenging to come up with something that is accepted as sufficient demonstration of the obviousness by the powers that be. Not that that's a good situation, but it may explain why so many seemingly obvious things receive patents.

  • Jon Garrett

    My Question is this. how did apple get a patent for mobile maps when apple has never had mobile maps?

  • tBs_Battousai

    Apple will still sue Google over this... regardless of if it's a valid lawsuit...

    • marcusmaximus04

      No they won't, that's ridiculous. They'll just sue Samsung, HTC, LG, ASUS, Motorola and Sony.

      • ssj4Gogeta

        And then call Judge Koh to their rescue.

      • Greyhame

        Sadly, this made me laugh out loud. And I say sadly because it's true.

  • zeoxzy

    i don't get it! Surely these patents relate to the first google maps app on ios, so how can apple be granted them?

    • marcusmaximus04

      Because Apple wrote the first google maps. It just used google's data.

  • ssj4Gogeta

    Google, please start patenting everything like crazy. You'll be doing a favor not only to yourself, but also to the consumers.

  • dorg

    We must be neighbors. I live off Kanan. Holler at me. In regards to this patent. I think its disrespectful that Apple even applies for this. They arent a major player in the maps game. And as far im concerned...they never will be.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

      haha, cool. Yep, I'm out here in Agoura. And oh my god it's so boring.

      • Tomi Golob

        Agoura? Too bad it's not named Agora ...would been cooler (in ancient greece agora was like a town square or plaza)...

        Squids <-- totally random

  • Piyush

    F#@% APPLE

  • cguella

    Let me start this off right. F Apple.

    • Tomi Golob

      Apple is like Berlusconi... need i say more?

  • Southrncomfortjm

    Obvious patent is obvious.

  • Paul_Werner

    How many people looked up the definition of skeuomorphism? ;-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ncoulombe Nathan Coulombe

    Can we please just rebuild our patent system from the ground up? This is clearly moronic.

  • adi19956

    They don't fuck around at Android Police. Top article, again

  • Lox_knc

    This is not an innovation! How can this patent have been granted ?!?
    I am pretty sure Apple do pay some people at the patent office.

  • Justin Swanson

    Please keep these coming. While I don't understand all of the legalese, I loved your breakdown and will use it when the Cultists come around me spewing vile lies about this patent. :)

  • Matthew Fry

    I'm surprised it's not broader. Like long press and move to place *something* somewhere else on the screen. Then they could sue everyone.

  • kitti

    its obvious that these patent guys are corrupt. they get money from a*, grant it and the result is that google has to remove some functionality. a* destroys the complete market. smartphone, tablet and pc.

  • http://profiles.google.com/rcastles Robert Castles

    Does anyone else besides me remember doing every single one of these things with a stylus on Bing maps on Windows mobile maybe over 4 years ago now?

  • jonathan3579

    Maybe I'm not very well read but could Apple use this against Google despite the fact that Google Maps was around first? Doesn't that technically qualify as prior art?

  • Bunter

    Just another reason for me to never own anything Apple has an involvement in!

  • gordon glassick

    why were they even allowed to patent this???? this is what is messed up with the patent system.... they didnt come up with any of this (did they??) so why are they allowed to patent it when map stuff like this has been around for a long time.....

  • MeCampbell30

    Crazy application. These ticky tac incremental creations should not be patentable. We need a patent system for the 21st century.

  • Googler

    Its Google man... Apple chose a wrong opponent... Guess the tiny apple wants to get crushed

  • AD093

    I certainly have a single finger gesture for apple!

  • anywherehome

    rotten Apple! do not buy his product if you are not rotten too!

  • Dan

    Every patent for every skeuomorphic gui function should be invalidated unless that company also owns the patent for the physical function in the real world. Do you have a patent on pulling a thumbtack out of a map and moving it somewhere else? If not, shut up and go home.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasonconort Jason Conort

    Personally I am tired of our patent system, and I am tired of Apple that has no issues taking advantage of it.

  • Asphyx

    Someone at the Patent office needs to ink up thier DENIED stamp for anything coming from Apple!
    Then we might actually see more innovation than litigation

  • Hatyrei

    Apple is just a big Copy Cat....who branded their so call "new features" as revolutionary ....ROFL

  • Martin Cameron

    I have obviously misunderstood the patent and your explanation, because I've been using the functionality you describe in Google Maps for some time.

    Let me explain: I walk each day and like to keep a record using the app: "MyTracks". This sends the data collected to my Google Docs account when I save it at the end of a walk. To complement the data, I've also "drawn" the track that I take on Google Maps, by dragging markers on the default route (as drawn by the map between the start and finish points selected) and moving that part of the route to a different point.

    I'm obviously wrong in my interpretation though, because that bastion of sensibility and sanity - the US Patents Office - wouldn't be so thick as to grant a Patent to Apple for functionality that is clearly pre-existing, would it?

    [Sorry for the use of the oxymoron: using the words "sensibility and sanity" and "US Patents Office" in the same sentence.]

  • master94

    In order for Google to infringe on Apple Maps it would have to suck and get you lost.