Exactly five years ago, Despair Inc. (makers of the lovely calendars that have hung in my office every year since 1999) was able to trademark :-( and immediately announced (jokingly) that they were going to sue just about everyone who used it. Amusingly, not everyone got the joke leading to outrage directed at the company. Well, in the latest case of intellectual property protection around the ever popular :), Cellular News is claiming in a headline that Cingular Patents the Emoticon :(. So, that would imply that :-( is now both trademarked and patented. It's text, so, hell, maybe someone should try to copyright it also. Looking at the details of the story suggest that it's not quite as bad as the headline suggests -- but still amazingly ridiculous. The article doesn't link to the patent, but a quick search turns up a newly issued patent on a Method for sending multi-media messages using emoticons, assigned to AT&T (not Cingular). I should mention, by the way, that there are a stunning number of patents involving emoticons -- and you have to believe that, unlike in the Despair case, none of these patent holders filed these jokingly. What this particular patent covers is the ability to use animated emoticons in mobile messaging, rather than just the text variety. So, you're fine if you still use your standard :) as you text your friends. However, even so, how in the world could this possibly deserve patent protection? Animated smileys are common just about everywhere, and not because of some brilliant "invention" that deserves protection, but because it's an obvious idea. Why should anyone deserve to get a patent on this same idea, just because it's on a mobile phone instead of a computer? What sort of patent examiner allows patents like this to be approved... and how does this possibly encourage innovation? Update: The folks from Cellular News have stopped by to point out that the actual patent is a different one from the one we're discussing. It is from Cingular and is a bit different. However, the good news is that it's just a patent application, as opposed to a full patent. The patent in this case covers adding a button to the screen of a mobile phone to let you choose which emoticon you'd like. Again, not as broad as completely patenting emoticons, but still pretty ridiculous. Hopefully the patent examiners realize this in time. The original patent we discussed, however, still never should have been granted.
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