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Should we really give Apple, or any patent-holder, ownership over human gestures?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
4th September 2012


Republished from Douglas Rushkoff, warning us of a slippery slope that we have been on for quite a while:

“Imagine we were just developing spoken language for the first time. And someone came up with a new word to describe an action, thought, or feeling – like “magnify” or “dreadful.” But in this strange world, the person who came up with the word demanded anyone else who used it to pay him a dollar every time the word was uttered. That would make it pretty difficult for us to negotiate our way to a society that communicated through speech.

That’s the way the patent wars on smartphone and tablet advances are beginning to feel to me.

As a human being, I do not particularly care about Apple’s recent victory in the US version of its patent lawsuit against Samsung for copying its iPhone and iPad’s form and features. Now that Apple is demanding that Samsung pull eight of its products off the shelf, my only personal interest is whether the Samsung products, once banned, will become collectors’ items. Will I one day want to show my grandchild the phone that dared to mimic the iPhone?

But while the details of legalities and impact to share prices and even consumer choice don’t keep me or any of my friends up at night, there is nonetheless something creepy about Apple’s suit. It’s not so much that Apple – the biggest company in the world – has turned into a competitive monster; it’s the territory that Apple’s fighting over. It feels as if the technology innovation wars are no longer over one piece of technology or another, but over us humans.

It’s one thing for Apple to defend the look and feel of its phone – things like the little button on the bottom, which are apparently obvious but actually the result of a lengthy and painstaking design process. They may deserve a few years exclusive on stuff like that.

But when it comes to gestures, such as the now ubiquitous “pinch and zoom” technology through which users stretch or shrink pictures and text, well, that no longer feels quite the same. They are gestures that may have begun on the device, but which have become internalized, human movements. When my daughter was three I used to watch her attempt to enact those same swipes and stretches on the television screen – a phenomenon so prevalent that many television dealers now keep a supply of Windex handy to clean their giant flat screens of children’s fingerprints on a regular basis.

That’s because these gestures are not simply technological innovations, but the language through which we humans are coming to navigate our way through the emerging digital landscape. We take to gestures and movements that grow out of the ones we use here in the real world. To translate them into the digital realm well requires skill, but the gestures themselves are not the typical territories – like land masses – over which corporations have traditionally fought. They’re inside us.

Usually, advancements of this sort are developed through consortia of companies. The HTML standards through which the Web is rendered are not owned by a single company, but developed together and used by everyone. Imagine if one musical instrument company owned the patent on the piano keyboard, and another on the tuning of a violin. Or what if every typewriter company had to develop its own layout of letters? What if blowing one’s nose into soft disposable paper were owned by Kleenex?

While Apple deserves to be rewarded for the innovations it comes up with, there’s a limit to how far into our learned behaviors that the company should be awarded protection from competitors. Our transition toward a digitally functioning society is no less momentous than the shift from grunters to speakers, or from speakers to readers and writers. As such, it will require an equally cooperative spirit from the people and companies who take us there.”

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One Response to “Should we really give Apple, or any patent-holder, ownership over human gestures?”

  1. Elisa Says:

    This is interesting. You sound a little like Piaget;-)

    It is interesting to consider the gesture languages used by those deaf individuals who are not taught or exposed to sign language. They are without a language, yet there are interpreters who are able to interpret their gestures fluently & respond even upon first meeting them. These interpreters are deaf themselves, but interpret to sign language which is then interpreted to speech. (Most cases of the languageless here are in recent immigrant families, so often English, in this case, is then interpreted to the native language of the family in cases of group dialog. This is a long process.)

    If gestures can be recognized by people w/no prior exposure… can they be considered the intellectual property of any one entity?

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