Friday 12 August 2011

Bad Apples

It was supposed to be a normal day at the office today but after I read my morning diet of geonews feeds I felt compelled to pen a brief blog entry. Those nice people at Apple Inc in Cupertino have only gone and applied for a patent for something they are calling 'schematic maps'. You can read the application here and form your own opinions but for what it's are mine.

What a ridiculous concept! The detail of the application effectively states that any map created using a computer would fall under the patent because every map undergoes the sort of process Apple are trying to patent. While they refer to schematic maps specifically, the detail pretty much refers to the process of cartographic design and production. They talk about methods to select detail from data and present it meaningfully, to make some elements stand out by exaggerating them and to de-emphasise others. This is simply cartographic generalsiation and symbolisation and it's what we do, what anyone does, when making a map to bring the essential characteristics into view. Schematic maps are one form of portrayal that we might end up with in certain circumstances but how can this be patented? In his own blog, Ed Parsons has already provided some thoughts on the issue which he also regards as lunacy. I entirely agree with Ed...the ability for a company to patent something as intangible as a concept (a science, a process etc) is unimaginable. So anyone or any organisation making or publishing a map in the future might have to seek Apple's permission and no doubt pay some royalties. If it didn't have the potential for such manifest consequences it would be laughable.

Any anyway...hasn't it all been done before? 19th Century Marshall Island stick charts are portable forms of navigation that represent geography schematically. Mr Beck's London Underground is perhaps the most famous contemporary example of a schematic map but there are countless others that under this patent would be unpublishable.

While we're discussing Apple's liking for patents it's also worth noting their lockdown on the concept of tablets. Well again they were beaten to it by some considerable distance...Babylonian clay tablets from 2300 B.C. are the earliest forms of mapping on a tablet!

So this idea that large organisations can patent something as ubiquitous as a map (of whatever eventual type) or a concept or method that forms part of the process of cartography is just absurd...of course, if the application is approved it becomes even more absurd!

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