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Dumb U.S. Patents

by Damian Yerrick

The United States Patent and Trademark Office has granted several dumb patents. Here, I define "dumb patent" as a patent that U.S. patent law (Title 35, United States Code) would have disallowed because the inventions disclosed therein were obvious to anybody skilled in applied computer sciences given the prior art.

In this exhibit I'll give a link to the full text of each patent and reproduce one of the dumb claims (often the first). Most patents now subsisting expire 20 years after the filing date; those subsisting as of mid-1996 expire 17 years after the date of issue if that is longer.

U.S. Patent 4,754,270: Apparatus for varying the size and shape of an image in a raster scanning type display

Filed Feb. 12, 1985; issued June 28, 1988; assigned to Nintendo Co., Ltd. Inventor Murauchi claims to have invented

A variable image displaying apparatus using a raster scanning type display comprising:
  • an addressable memory means for storing display data to be read out in a predetermined timing relationship with raster scanning of said display to produce a display image,
  • input data means for supplying numerical data that determines image size,
  • variable address data generating means having variable addressing increments for generating address data correlated with display data addresses stored in said memory means to output said display data, said variable address data generating means including arithmetic calculating means for digitally calculating addressing increments in response to said numerical data supplied by said input data means and in response to timing signals related to the scanning of said display, and
  • said variable address data generating means being responsive to said arithmetic calculating means to increment addresses for addressing said memory means according to said numerical data that determines image size.

This and several other claims in the patent seem to cover hardware accelerated affine texture mapping where fill rate is generated in step with the pixel clock. It also seems to read on the horizontal sprite pixel doubling of the Atari 2600 "Stella" video chip and of the scanline doubling used to select low-resolution graphics modes on IBM's Enhanced Graphics Adapter.

U.S. Patent 4,813,682: Video target control and sensing circuit for photosensitive gun

Filed June 10, 1987; assigned to Nintendo Co., Ltd. Inventor Okada claims to have invented

A control apparatus using television video to display images on a video screen for simulated game play and target practice, comprising:
  • target signal generating means for generating a signal or displaying a target at a location on a video screen,
  • trigger signal generating means (44) for generating a trigger signal in response to a manual operation.
  • photoelectric light detecting means for detecting light from the video screen in response to the trigger signal from said trigger signal generating means,
  • black picture displaying means (6,8,10) for displaying a black picture for a predetermined period on said television screen in response to the trigger signal from said trigger signal generating means,
  • spurious light determining means for determining whether said photoelectric light detecting means detects light during said predetermined period that said black picture is displayed,
  • white picture displaying means (6,8,10) for displaying a white target area after said spurious light determining means determines that no light has been detected during said black picture on said video screen for a predetermined period, said white target area being placed substantially at the location where the target was displayed, and
  • signal extracting means (43) for extracting a target detection signal form said photoelectric light detecting means when detecting light from the white target area displayed on said video screen, after lapse of said predetermined black picture displaying period.

Please don't tell me Nintendo invented the light pen, which was widely used on PCs before mice became commonplace. Heck, IBM's EGA had a light pen connector.

U.S. Patent 4,860,128: Recordable data device having identification symbols formed thereon and cooperating data processing system having registering symbols

Filed Apr. 24, 1986; issued Aug. 22, 1989; assigned to Nintendo Co., Ltd. In this patent, inventor Nakagawa claims to have invented

  1. A floppy disk capable of being inserted into an insertion opening of a read/write unit, comprising:
    • a rigid case having a substantially rectangular shape and being insertable into said insertion opening of said read/write unit, said case having opposite substantially rectangular main surfaces which form a space for containing a magnetic disk, said case assuming a first position during insertion or ejection of said case from said read/write unit, and said case being movable to a second position after insertion to complete loading of said case into said read/write unit to enable read/write operation, wherein the movement between said first position and said second position is substantially orthogonal to said main surface of said case; and
    • recessed first identifying symbols formed on each of said opposite main surfaces at an end thereof in a direction of insertion of said rigid case, said recessed identifying symbols being formed symmetrically such that said case can be inserted into said opening of said read/write unit with either of said main surfaces facing upwards and one of said recessed identifying symbols will mate to a projected second identifying symbol which is formed inside said insertion opening of said read/write unit to allow said case to move from said first position to said second position to complete loading in said read/write unit, whereby reading of data by said read/write unit from said magnetic disk and writing of data by said read/write unit to said magnetic disk are not enabled unless one of said recessed identifying symbols and said projected identifying symbol mate.
  2. A floppy disk in accordance with claim 1, wherein said first and second identifying symbols comprise an assembly of characters.
  3. A floppy disk in accordance with claim 2, wherein an assembly of characters or symbols of said first identifying symbols are comprised of one or more registered trademarks or of a copyright.

In other words, this is a Trademark Security System that would subsequently be found ineffective, as it tries to grant patent rights over the nearly perpetual term of a trademark or copyright. Sega v. Accolade 977 F2d 1510 (9th Cir. 1992). This isn't so much dumb as in obvious but rather not useful for the purpose set out in the summary.

U.S. Patent

Dates pending; assigned to Nintendo Co., Ltd. In this patent, inventors Hiroo Ueda and Hiromitsu Yagi claim to have invented

A color encoder which is connected to a color television receiver such that a color image can be displayed by the color television receiver, comprising:
  • first means for generating a predetermined number of phase signals, each having a frequency which is related to the frequency of a reference frequency signal, each of said predetermined number of phase signals being different in phase from each other and each corresponding to a hue capable of being output to said color television receiver;
  • second means for generating color code signals including a hue code for designating the hue to be output and a level selection code for designating a color level to be output;
  • third means for selecting one of said phase signals obtained from said first means in accordance with said hue code included in one of said color code signals output from said second means;
  • fourth means for generating an amplitude selection signal in accordance with said level selection code included in the one of said color code signals; and
  • fifth means, responsive to the amplitude selection signal from said fourth means, for generating a color signal by changing the level of the phase signal selected by said third means to have a predetermined amplitude selected by said amplitude selection signal and which is associated with the chroma of the color signal and varies between two voltages at least one of which is also selected by said amplitude selection signal, an average value of said level-changed phase signal being associated with the degree of brightness of the color signal.

In other words, the hardware specifies hue and value coordinates of each pixel of the video signal, and the video encoder translates hue into phase and value into level as the NTSC and PAL standards demand. In NTSC and PAL video systems (but not the Franco-Russian SECAM), Atari 2600's Stella video chip did exactly this.

U.S. Patent 5,080,377: Video display system

Filed May 31, 1990; assigned to Rare Coin-It Inc., now a division of Microsoft Corporation. In this patent, inventors Tim Stamper and Chris Stamper claim to have invented

A method for displaying an elongated playing field on a video display wherein the portion of the playing field that can be displayed on the entire video display area is smaller than the whole playing field such that only a portion of the whole playing field can be displayed on the video display at any one time, the playing field having opposing boundaries and including a fixed control component for interacting with playing tokens to cause the tokens to move over the playing field, wherein the tokens move multidirectionally over the playing field, the method including the steps of continuously:
  1. determining the playing field position of a playing token;
  2. identifying a position for a playing window on the playing field such that said playing window includes said playing token; and
  3. displaying said playing window and a portion of the playing field including the control component even when said playing window and said portion of the playing field including the control component are not contiguous portions of the playing field, whereby the control component and said playing token are displayed.

The patent is supposed to cover a pinball simulator where the window with the ball scrolls up and down while the window with the flippers stays still. But Scorched Earth would have infringed this claim as it reads.

U.S. Patent 5,267,734: Video game having calendar dependent functionality

Filed Apr. 29, 1992; assigned to Rare Coin-It Inc. In this patent, inventors Tim Stamper and Chris Stamper claim to have invented an

Apparatus for playing video games having multiple sequences of game play, wherein a game player must successfully accomplish predetermined game tasks in each sequence in order to advance to succeeding game sequences, said apparatus having computing means for processing program instructions for carrying out the play of a game, said apparatus being adapted to be connected to a display means, which displays a series of graphic images during the play of a game, said apparatus comprising:
  • memory means for storing data relating to the play of a game and to the status of the game being played, including program instructions which define the multiple sequence video game, circuit means for providing a time function, said program instructions defining time periods dedicated to active play phases and time periods dedicated to steady state play phases, the active state play phases determining times during which a player must attempt and successfully carry out game sequences to succeed in playing the game.

Common scheduler programs, known as "cron" on GNU/Linux and BSD operating systems and "Microsoft Task Scheduler" on Microsoft Windows systems, can determine active and steady-state phases of a clock or calendar and run programs during active states. Servers often schedule a backup to take place every night or every weekend at a given time. Many computers, especially those running Windows operating systems, have the scheduler set to check for updates to the operating system every few hours. However, if you use an operating system's scheduler to start a video game, you violate U.S. Patent 5,267,734.

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