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No, Apple doesn't own the mobile "page turn"

(MoneyWatch) Yet another technology pundit has lauded Apple (AAPL) for patenting a widely used feature in mobile devices that ostensibly will let the consumer electronics giant pound tablet and smartphone rivals into submission.

Looking at a recent design patent awarded to Apple, the New York Times' Nick Bilton declares that the company "now owns the page turn." The "turn" is the animation that makes it look as though you're turning a physical page when reading an e-book or some other electronic document.

Bilton is mistaken. The patent in question won't let Apple keep such animations -- a bit of screen simulation readers have gotten used to on their mobile devices -- all for itself, nor rip them from the screens of competing gadgets.

His first error is to think that a design patent affords broader protection of intellectual property than it actually does. There are three basic types of patents in the U.S.: utility, design and plant (The latter is for new breeds of plants, so we can focus on the first two.) Here's how the United States Patent and Trademark Office distinguishes between utility and design patents:

In general terms, a "utility patent" protects the way an article is used and works, while a "design patent" protects the way an article looks. The ornamental appearance for an article includes its shape/configuration or surface ornamentation applied to the article, or both. Both design and utility patents may be obtained on an article if invention resides both in its utility and ornamental appearance.

While utility and design patents afford legally separate protection, the utility and ornamentality of an article may not be easily separable. Articles of manufacture may possess both functional and ornamental characteristics.

In short, if you want to protect how something works or what it does, you need a utility patent. A design patent protects what it looks like.

Design patents can be powerful competitive weapons. Of late, Apple has used them to attack mobile hardware rival Samsung. However, a design patent doesn't allow a company to "own" the underlying concept of a screen interface mimicking a page turn. All this patent does is provide Apple some legal protection for how the turning page looks on its device screens.

In other words, Apple might argue that Samsung can't make a smartphone that looks like the iPhone and that duplicates the specific animated movement of a digital page across the screen. But Apple can't prevent other companies from using animation to simulate a page turn. Period.

How can you be sure? For one, look at the Apple patent. It cites 60 other patents and applications. Not doing so was Bilton's second big mistake. Some of the references are design-related. Others, like this IBM 1995 patent for a "data processing system graphical user interface which emulates printed material," have to do with utility and cover function.

Even if the Apple patent dealt with a feature's utility and not its design, the company itself points to other ways of implementing a page turn that had prior legal protection and that it doesn't own. For instance, Google (GOOG) earlier this year patented something called "Animated Page Turning." That patent specifically addresses a turning page animation on a "digital reading device display."

So everyone can relax -- Apple doesn't own the concept of page turning animation. If you own an Android device, you won't have to suddenly forgo seeing the more than 1,000 pages of "War and Peace" meander across the screen.

Image courtesy of MorgueFile user cohdra

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