January 31, 2006

All your emoticons are belong to Cingular?

The Register reports that "Cingular, the United States' largest mobile phone network this week applied to patent emoticons, better known as smileys".

The text of the patent application lists

) Smile ;-) or ;) Wink :-D or :D Big smile :-)) or :)) Very happy :0) Big nose smiley |-) Cool! >:-) or >:) Evil grin >;-> or >;> Evil grin with a wink :-X or :X My lips are sealed }:-) or }:) Devilish :-{circumflex over ( )}) or :{circumflex over ( )}) Tongue in cheek :-P or :P Sticking out tongue :-& or :& Tongue tied :op Puppy face 0:-) or 0:) Saint :-)8 or :)8 Happy wearing a bow tie 8-) or 8) Happy with glasses #-) I partied all night %-) or %) Drunk :-###.. or :###.. Being sick %-( or %( Confused :-0 or :0 Shocked :-o or :o Surprised :-| or :| Indecision :'-( or :'( Crying :'-) or :') Crying of happiness :-( or :( Sad

and motivates the "invention" as follows:

Written communication plays an integral role in modern social, economic, and cultural life. Writing facilitates the transfer and preservation of information and ideas. However, without direct access to facial expression, body language, and voice inflection, the potential for misunderstanding written communications is considerable.

The application seems to focus on the means of entering the emoticons, rather than the emoticons themselves:

A method and system for generating a displayable icon or emoticon form that indicates the mood or emotion of a user of the mobile station. A user of a device, such as a mobile phone, is provided with a dedicated key or shared dedicated key option that the user may select to insert an emoticon onto a display or other medium. The selection of the key or shared dedicated key may result in the insertion of the emoticon, or may also result in the display of a collection of emoticons that the user may then select from using, for example, a key mapping or navigation technique.

Still, this is my nomination for the lamest patent application ever. Have these people no sense of decency?

The article in The Register links to

"... the most delightful commentary ever written about the practice of using emoticons, Geoffrey Nunberg's celebrated radio piece A Wink is as Good as a Nod - where Nunberg imagines the literary greats employing the technique."

[Update: Chris Waigl draws my attention to Scott Fahlman's page on his (co-?)invention of emoticons, including a description of the "Digital Coelacanth Project" which found the original Bboard Thread in which :-) was proposed.]

[Update #2: Several readers have written to emphasize the point that I made above, though perhaps not strongly enough, that Cingular is not seeking a patent on emoticons as such -- contrary to the implication of the quote from The Register -- merely a patent on any method for entering emoticons via special keys, key sequences or menus. The lameness of the application, in my opinion, is due to the unprecedentedly high "duh factor" of this "invention", not because emoticons have been around for a quarter of a century or more. I expect that there is some prior art for keyboard shortcuts and the like for emoticon entry -- but even if there weren't, no one should be able to patent something as obvious as this. It's like asking for a patent on the idea of putting portable mp3 players in a shopping bag so that purchasers can carry them home more easily.

In Cingular's defense, they may feel driven to such silly gestures by the extraordinary pliability of the USPTO in the hands of "patent trolls", such as Acacia Media Technologies. That is, Cingular's aim may not be to derive revenue from licensing their simple-minded "invention" to others, but rather to protect themselves against having to pay ransom to the likes of Acacia for the right to do business in the obvious way.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 31, 2006 05:09 PM