Picsel sues Apple over iPhone Graphics Update

Another year, another lawsuit. I assume that Picsel’s lawsuit involves either this patent¬†or this one. Here’s a list of Picsel’s issued patents in case you’re interested.

I’d never heard of Picsel before (their logo looks like something drawn by a bored intern using PowerPoint, so they’re clearly a company lacking in taste) but given their client list (most major consumer electronics companies and most major cellphone manufacturers) they’re obviously not simply patent trolls.

I am not a lawyer, let alone a patent lawyer, and I find the way patents describe processes to be amazingly annoying. The one thing you won’t find in a patent is a vaguely straightforward explanation of what the gizmo actually does. But you can piece it together…

As I read it, the first patent basically involves redrawing the screen using an approximation / cached tiles of the expected display and then replacing it with the actual pixels when they’re available (something pretty much every OS and many applications do to some extent, which seems to me to fall under the “bleeding obvious to anyone in the industry” category — unless Apple for some reason is using the very specific tiling technique described, which seems to me less obvious and less likely), while the latter looks like Picsel attempting to patent something vaguely reminiscent of Quartz Compositor (and hence falls under the “prior art” category since Apple has had Quartz Compositor since long before the patent was issued).

So, I’m guessing there’s at least some merit to the lawsuit and Apple will pay something in the tens or hundreds of millions. (After all, they settled with Burst for $10M and their case was a joke.)

Tilting at Windmills

Psystar isn’t my idea of a modern Don Quixote. Psystar’s latest tack in its legal wrangle with Apple (for those not familiar with the case, Psystar is selling Mac clones with Mac OS X pre-installed in — Apple claims — violation of its EULA) is to claim that it bought copies of Mac OS X fair and square and can resell them how it chooses. Apple cannot restrict Psystar’s ability to resell goods.

Now, in general, I like Apple and I don’t like Psystar. In “the world as it is” Apple is one of the relatively good guys, and Psystar is, at best, simply a bunch of guys trying to profit from nooks and crannies of IP law. Apple won’t license OS X, but — they figure — maybe we can do some kind of end-run around it.

This latest tactic is pretty interesting. If it succeeds the precedent it sets could basically kill the software industry. The software industry is devised on a legal fiction — that when you buy a box labelled “Adobe Photoshop CS3” you are buying a license (to use Photoshop CS3 as per the restrictions set forth in the EULA) and not a physical bunch of atoms to do with as you will (e.g. install a copy, crack its password protection, and then install cracked versions on every computer in your large organization).

Now, you may argue that Psystar isn’t committing piracy. It isn’t (for example) cracking its copy of Mac OS X (oops, actually it is) or selling more copies of it than it buys “fair and square”. But if the EULA’s strictures against modifying or reverse engineering the software or installing and running it on non-Apple computers isn’t valid, why should any other such stricture be?

This is a very slippery slope. More of a cliff, actually. Depending on how you read it, the DMCA really forbids you from playing a digital video altogether, since in order to play it you need to make copies of it all over the place (e.g. in the disk’s memory cache, your computer’s system RAM, your cache, your video card, and so on and so forth). In order for any of these agreements to make sense we need to close our eyes and wish really hard. Now if you come along and start taking an axe to clear cut, tangible, and obvious license conditions — like not being allowed to modify a product, reverse engineer it, or run it on unauthorized hardware — exactly how are the tooth fairy conditions going to survive?

I’d love to see the fantasy world of software licensing get a good whack in the head, but powerful interests will make sure such a thing never happens (at least, not in one seismic shift). In the meantime, I’d prefer for someone other than Apple to get it in the neck when software licensing gets a dose of reality.