Last week I commented on the sad state of patent effects on interface design work. Commenters to that entry pointed out that concerns over treble damages for willful infringement, concerns over having employees deposed in patent investigations, and the potential costs of infringement defenses all make it perfectly sensible for companies to shut people up in boxes of ignorance so there's no chance they might be exposed to patent information.
I seem to recall that the original purpose of patents, as written into the US Constitution, was to promote the progress of science. If someone can explain to me how forcing people to be ignorant of what's going on in their field of work promotes progress I'd be grateful. Because to me this is just exactly the opposite of the effects we ought to be getting. Paul Sherman, another professional in the user experience (UX) field, has a combination history and rant on his blog, talking about what this means for those of us who work particularly on the visible portions of software - the interfaces and interactions people have with them.
Now, because I don't particularly care for being shut up in an intellectual blank box, I want to talk about United States Patent Application 20070177803, Apple's Multi-Touch Gesture Dictionary patent application. If you don't want to read the full application, MacNN has a very good summary of many of the main claims and drawings.
Engadget, among others, has a snippy view of the application, claiming that Apple's motivation is to "own" this form of keyboard-less interaction with devices. In particular this patent appears not to be about a specific dictionary or language - which are generally regarded as unpatentable - but rather about software and methods for using a large gesture dictionary and allowing meanings to be assigned in context-sensitive ways to different gestures in the dictionary. The application is laden with phrases like "for example" and "in one embodiment" that seem to be attempting to separate the methods claimed in the patent from any particular implementation.
In addition, the patent application incorporates by reference eight other granted patents or applications in process. This particular application has garnered some attention but it doesn't seem to be unique - it seems to be part of a process of Apple generating IP in this area. As with many of these things, there's a large bucket of prior art and it's not clear what, if any, of that art will be considered relevant. To my knowledge, nobody has yet tried implementing what I would call a gesture dictionary service that can be drawn on by multiple applications; all the implementations I know of embed the gestural language directly.
So in summary, I think some of the people up in arms would do well to read the application carefully and not treat this one application as anything hugely different from what has been going on in the industry for at least the last 15 years.
(Full disclosure: I did my Master's Thesis some years ago in the area of coverbal natural gesture, and studied a bit about gesture languages at that time.)