Sunday, September 27, 2009

The role-based favicon, and why Novell patented it

How many of these favicons can you identify? (From left to right: Gmail, Google Calendar, FilesAnywhere, Twitter, Y-Combinator, Reddit, Yahoo!, Picasa, Blogger)

Last week (excuse me a second while I tighten the straps on my tomato-proof jumpsuit) I was granted a patent (U.S.Patent No.7,594,193, "Visual indication of user role in an address bar") on something that I whimsically call the rolicon.

In plain English, a rolicon is a context-sensitive favicon (favorites icon) indicating your current security role in a web app, in the context of the URL you're currently visiting. It is meant to display in the address bar of the browser. Its appearance would be application-specific and would vary, as I say, according to your security-role status. In other words, if you logged into the site in question using an admin password, a certain type of icon would appear, whereas if you logged in with an OpenID URI, a different icon would appear in the address bar; and if you logged in anonymously, yet a different icon would be used, etc.

Now the inside story on how and why I decided to apply for this patent.

First understand that the intellectual property rights aren't mine. If you look at the patent you'll see that the Assignee is listed as Novell, Inc. That's because I did the work as a Novell employee.

Okay, but why do this patent? The answer is simpler than you think (and will brand me as a whore in some people's eyes). I did it for the money. Novell has a liberal bonus program for employees who contribute patent ideas. We're not talking a few hundreds bucks. We're talking contribute ten patents, put a child through one year of college.

I have two kids, by the way. One is in college, using my patent bonuses to buy pepperoni pizzas as we speak.

Now to the question of Why this particular patent.

Novell has two primary businesses: Operating systems, and identity management. On the OS side, Novell owns SUSE Linux, one of the top three Linux distributions in the world in terms of adoption at the enterprise level. This puts Novell in competition with Microsoft. That competition is taken very seriously at Novell (and at Microsoft, by the way). Perhaps it should be called coopetition at this point. You may recall that in 2006, Novell and Microsoft entered into an agreement (a highly lucrative one for Novell: $240 million) involving improvement of the interoperability of SUSE Linux with Microsoft Windows, cross-promotion of both products, and mutual indemnification of each company and their customers on the use of patented intellectual property.

Novell continues to take an aggressive stance on IP, however, and would just as soon keep ownership of desktop, browser, and OS innovations out of the hands of Redmond.

As it happens, I was on Novell's Inventions Committee, and I can tell you that a lot of attention was given, when I was there, to innovations involving desktop UIs as well as UI ideas that might pertain to security, access control, roles, trust, or other identity-management sorts of things.

One day, I was researching recent Microsoft patent applications and I noticed that Microsoft had applied for a patent on the little padlock icon that appears in IE's address bar when you visit a site using SSL. You've seen it:

I was outraged. How dare they patent such a simple thing?

I did more research and realized that favicons and browser adornments of various kinds figured into a number of patents. It wasn't just Microsoft.

Coming up with the idea of a role-based favicon (and a flyout icon menu so you can select a different role if you don't want to use your current one) was pretty easy, and I was surprised no one had yet patented it. (Most good ideas -- have you noticed? -- are already patented.) It seemed obvious to me that Microsoft would eventually patent the rolicon idea if we (Novell) didn't. So I applied for the patent. The paperwork went to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on February 6, 2007. The patent was granted September 22, 2009.

Would I ever have patented something like this on my own, had I not worked for Novell? No. Do I think it's a good patent for Novell to have? Yes. Am I sorry I got paid a nice bonus for coming up with what many people, I'm sure, would call a fairly lame piece of technology? Crap no.

Do I think patents of this kind (or any kind) are good or right, in general? Hey. Today may be Sunday, but I'm no theologian. I don't take sides in the patent jihad. The patent system is what it is. Let it be.

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  1. Anonymous12:09 PM

    You do take sides: the side in favor of software patents.

    You apply for software patents and by suggest that status quo is preferable.

    I can understand that companies need to secure themselves by participating in the patent arms race, but I don't understand how anybody can look at that situation and say "Let it be."

  2. OH wow, no way dude that sounds like fun!


  3. Kundi1:28 PM

    You sound defensive. You shouldn't have to be. Let the geeks decry software patents all they want; IMHO your idea, as simple as it is, is patent-worthy, since it's:
    (1) novel (unless someone else is doing it... well, is anyone?),
    (2) non-obvious (I've coded and used a few web-apps with multi-roled users, and all I've ever used or seen is "You're logged in as XXX"), and...
    (3) useful (anyone who uses a web-app in multiple roles would appreciate having a small, visual, easily-seen indication of what they're logged in as).
    Yes, (3) is a requirement for patentability, despite what laser-kitty patents might lead people to believe.

  4. Anonymous1:33 PM

    FYI, we have prior art. We've been doing role-based favicons for at least 3 years (they change for user levels, and change based on position within our Intranet), prior to your application date, and have no intent of removing them. Novell can go fuck itself.

  5. No matter how much I may respect your work, this entry is just sad.

    You have not only contributed to you children education, you have contributed to a rarefied future where no one will be able to design anything, without being threatened by 100 patent holders, who will instantly demand you if your idea happens to be successful. And that includes the future work of your very children.

    In a way, you're giving them a fish today, but you're not teaching them how to fish. Actually you're making useless to know how to fish, for anyone.

    But hey, let it be, it's okay as long as they have their pepperoni pizzas.

  6. Anonymous2:08 PM

    and when i sell drugs to kids for money, i'm doing myself a favor.

  7. Anonymous2:27 PM


  8. Need patent for Troll-based favicon, such that when a document contains trolling, a small warning icon is displayed superimposed over the normal favicon. Troll warning icon may be in the form of an exclam (!) or an animated or photorealistic troll head.

  9. Anonymous4:51 PM

    If coming up with the idea was "pretty easy" then isn't that the definition of "obvious?" And haven't you just undermined the argument that this patent is non-obvious?

  10. Anonymous5:06 PM

    You are a total dickhead. You have made a decision to make your world a little more difficult to live in for everyone else, for your own personal gain. You then go through the typical gutless rationalization of "if I didn't do it someone else would".

    The saddest thing is you have no idea what a dipshit you are.

  11. Anonymous5:48 PM

    I hope you die in a fire and they spend Jenny's college tuition burying you

  12. Anonymous5:50 PM

    Go fuck yourself.

  13. Wait, *the* Kas Thomas?!?!?!

  14. Anonymous6:20 PM

    You should be ashamed of yourself. You are the scum of the software industry. Even fashion people are above you. At least they don't go around patenting every stupid little design/idea they come up with.

    i wish the worst for you.

  15. Anonymous6:29 PM

    Damn, some of these comments are pretty harsh!

    I also work for a massive IT company that puts a lot of effort into it's patent portfolio, and we also get decent bonuses for filing patents. About US$750 for each filing, with bonuses for your first and every fourth.

    What's that old rap saying -- don't hate the player, hate the game? All you free software bigots can go fuck yourselves if you think I'm giving up $750 in a year when hardly anyone got payrises or bonuses.

  16. Your a complete moron that promotes the stupid application of Software Patents.

    I really hope someone proves prior art against your patent, as someone mentioned in a comment previous that they had this working in there applications years before your application.

  17. Anonymous6:48 PM

    I too, have prior art. I was doing this back in '05.

  18. Kundi6:53 PM

    Even if there *is* prior art, this guy has nothing to worry about. He's already got his bonus; it's not going to get revoked if the patent gets invalidated. On the other hand, he's also probably not going to get a cent if this patent (or any of his others) results in a multi-million dollar settlement for Novell.

    As for the prior art itself, is it something we'd know about? If it cannot be proved that it was around when the patent was filed (or at the date of invention), I don't think it counts as prior art.

  19. Anonymous7:15 PM

    The patent system "is what it is" because of people like you, Kas. You thought of something half-interesting and the only point you seemed to consider relevant before patenting it is that it wasn't already patented.

    You're injuring innovation and freedom to program, Kas. You should feel bad about it.

  20. Software patents are evil. Even Microsoft will come to realize this when they finally get tired of going to east Texas to write cheques of hundreds of millions to patent trolls.

    But anyway the system being the way it is, I'm certainly not going to blame you for doing this. There's plenty of much worse patents, although this wouldn't even strike me as the kind of software thingie I could concede as being patentable. The real question is what Novell will do with those patents.

    So what is Novell's policy? Do they have any sort of patent pledge like their main Linnux competitor?

  21. Anonymous8:06 PM

    >All you free software bigots can go fuck yourselves if you think I'm giving up $750 in a year when hardly anyone got payrises or bonuses.

    I bet you can earn bigger bonuses selling drugs or prostitutes. And you'd even be a better person, because you'd be only smashing the future of people you don't know, and not the future of your own children (no matter if they get to work in IT related stuff, or just as IT users).

  22. Anonymous8:42 PM

    Hold on to your money. You'll need it when Novell a$$ign$ the patent over to Micro$oft and they $ue the crap out of your kid$.

    Software patents are evil and two evils never do any good.

  23. I have a question.

    If I have a good idea and I want to make sure no one else can monopolize on it and I want to make sure that anyone can use it. How would I go about it?

    Basically, I would want to open-source it and if I just started releasing it I would think some company would come along and try to patent it and say that the open community could no longer use it.

    I say this because I have a few good ideas that I want to share and that is my main worry, that some corporation will become greedy and try to shut it down.

  24. Anonymous9:30 PM

    Everyone else is doing it, so it's ok right? You're just a poor little guy trying to get by, isn't it? If it helps you, right now, immediately, who cares about the future? You're doing it for your kids, right?

    It's not like actions have consequences! There's no way that this could have negative effect on their world in the future! You exist in your own small bubble, with no connection to the outside or the future, so who gives a crap what you do now? It's your full right to think up useless patents so you can get some scraps off the table like a good boy. The lawyers love you!

    And afterall, it's not like patent were invented to give a limited, finite time right to the benefits of an invention to the inventor to encourage them to invent, but more importantly have to keep inventing to retain exclusivity to something. No, sir! It was meant so that lawyers can get hired (how could the poor bastards afford all those suits otherwise? Think of the lawyers!), and do graceful and majestic battle against each other and then come to an agreement that slows down further progress but generates money for whoever wrote up the patent first! Ha! It's not like you have to actually patent something useful you will make money from by being productive. If you patent enough things, someone is bound to make use of it, then you can sue them! That's what it was invented for!

    You are spineless, self-serving and repulsive. The most pathetic part however, is how you dare to justify it by using your kids as an excuse. I hope, for them, that they never have to read this or realise what a poor excuse for a human being their father is. I am sure they value whatever dignity you must have had at some point, more than pepperoni.

  25. Alex G12:39 AM

    Novell should be intelligent enough to realize filing patents like this and bragging about it makes them look bad and ticks off people in their industry, rushing to patent gizmos that can be implemented with 10 lines of PHP.

    Novell paints itself as an open source player, but the only thing Novell has is Linus Torvald's code, at least Microsoft bothers to write its own OS and compilers.

    Also, as a director I would be shocked at your profiting from the patent bonus program with such poor ideas and reprimand you. But something tells me your director is too busy finding ways to repackage open source code for profit.

    Those look like desperate measures, definitly a good time to dump Novell stock.

  26. Alex G1:11 AM

    I believe the right thing to do was to write a letter to Novell executives, copied below.

    To Novell Chief Technology Officer, Dr. Jeff Jaffe and Novell Chief Marketing Officer, John Dragoon

    I would like to bring the following blog post to your attention, it appears to be one of your employees exposing a patent he has filed for Novell, and Novell internal patent reward program.

    Allow me to humbly remind you that Novell markets to technology people, and as you can see in the post's comments, most technology people have a very negative opinion of software patents. Novell's interests are not served by this blog post, you are rewarding an employee in exchange for a poison patent and negative PR.

    This person, by this blog post, makes it seem like Novell has a million monkeys typing on a million keyboards and whatever they come up with gets filed for patent, and for each patent that makes it through, the monkey gets a treat.

    Your patent bonus program should reward technological innovations which will set Novell apart, not web browser gizmos.

    I hope that my opinion will meet your collective wisdom.

    Yours very truly,

    Alex G

  27. Sorry for the tone of some of the above comments. Thanks for being that honest and posting this! I do agree that your post sounds defensive, and I think that's the point:

    If you're convinced that software patents are a good (or neutral) thing, then don't let other people stop you. Share your arguments with us, convince us that what you're doing is right, fight for your cause no matter whether patents earn you money or not.

    But (as it seems) if you're feeling slightly uneasy and you're just doing it for the money, please don't. "It may be the wrong thing to do, but I needed the money" is a bad position to be in. Having a clear conscience is worth more than any amount of money. (And it's not like you're starving and really had no other choice, is it?)

    So please stop doing software patents unless you're convinced that they are a good thing. Every person listening to their conscience makes this world a better place :-)

  28. Craig5:17 AM

    >> I bet you can earn bigger bonuses selling drugs or prostitutes. And you'd even be a better person, because you'd be only smashing the future of people you don't know, and not the future of your own children (no matter if they get to work in IT related stuff, or just as IT users).

    Are you so seriously deluded as to honestly think this?

    The state of the professional software industry (you know, those of us who do this for a *living*) is that many of us are incentivised to disclose every idea that could possibly be novel. It's not our job to exhaustively search for prior art, it's the job of the team of people with access to patent and literature databases. If no prior art is found, then it gets filed. It gets filed, we get paid. If it gets actually granted, we get paid again (maybe).

    As a corporate employee that is most likely the only money apart from our salary we'll see from our invention. You know what? That's completely fine with me. We're not inventing game-changers here, we're talking about enterprise software with limited applications; which nonetheless a lot of very smart people work on and deserve to get paid for.

    We love programming, and are passionate about IT -- so much so we've made a career out of it. But we also have university debts to pay and families to feed. When I work damn hard to find a quicker, better, and non-obvious way to do something better explain to why the hell I shouldn't submit a disclosure?

    I recognise there are patent trolls -- but I also believe the system isn't the problem. I work for a company that uses their patents defensively, and the vast majority of companies with significant patent portfolio do the same.

    My conscience is clear.

  29. Craig5:27 AM

    >> How dare they patent such a simple thing?

    By the way, if you actually read the disclosure you'd see they didn't apply for a patent on "the little padlock icon that appears in IE's address bar when you visit a site using SSL". The disclosure is around validating the SSL certificate of the site, including the extended information about the newer EV certificates, and displaying that to the user in an easy to understand manner.

    Is that non-obvious? Well, did anyone do it before the disclosure was filed? It strikes me as the Jackson Pollock argument. You go to a gallery and think "that's not art, any clown could have thrown paint at a canvas!" . The point is you didn't. He did, and he did it first, and he gets the recognition because of it.

    Are patents like this ethical? Why wouldn't it be? Because it's a great idea and want to use it in your software? That's the point of the damn patents -- software is so ethereal and easily copied that the legal framework for protecting ideas and implementations is *more* important.

    If interoperability is your concern, then throw your weight behind open standards. The details of the implementation are free to be patented while the interface -- the important bit, IMO, is well defined and open for all to use.

    (By the way, I don't work for Microsoft. I do work for a Fortune 500 competitor with a large patent portfolio).

  30. Anonymous7:20 AM

    >software is so ethereal and easily copied that the legal framework for protecting ideas and implementations is *more* important.

    So is math, and thanks god you are not Fourier, because otherwise Fourier transform would be patented and we'd be all still living in the middle ages. But you would be rich, that's true, good for you.

  31. Anonymous7:46 AM

    >When I work damn hard to find a quicker, better, and non-obvious way to do something better explain to why the hell I shouldn't submit a disclosure?

    There's no reason not to do it, as long as you are only concerned about your own survival, and don't care about others. Self-interest at the cost of the group is what will kill our species in the end. If all the hard-working mathematicians and physicians in history were like you, we'd still be hunting deers with arrows. If I spend sleepless weeks working on something, I'd rather share it with others so they can keep improving on my work, than keep all the profit to myself.

    Anyway I shouldn't really care, in Europe we don't suffer Software patents, we don't have to deal with insane university debts/health insurance either, and I'm perfectly fine with it.

    The only one that wants software patents here is Microsoft and companies alike who want a monopoly over the industry, and let me mistrust they will use their patents defensively.

  32. Anonymous10:50 AM

    nice post Kas and thanks for sharing..
    when the foul mouthed children move out of their mother's basements and enter the real world their self-righteous indignation will be as embarrassing to them as it is funny to us. To them I simply say "Grow up Skippy and get a real job."

  33. Anonymous1:02 PM

    Come on, he put a patent on a simple IF statement to pick an image to show. This only serves to demonstrate how rotten the patent system is.

  34. Anonymous2:05 PM

    Great inventions and ideas should be patented, and even that only for a limited amount of time. But things for which someone has made no measurable contribution what so ever... Man! Do you want to put all developers out of business because everything is patented? That dog will come around and bite back someday.

  35. Thanks for the post, and honesty, Kas.

    I tried to look at the patent you linked to, but the short URL you've included ( ) takes me to patent # 7,603,481 instead of 7,594,193.

    Was that intentional?

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