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Patents Microsoft

Microsoft Applies For Patent On Tufte's Sparklines 175

Posted by timothy
from the audacity-of-patents dept.
jenkin sear writes "Data visualization guru Edward Tufte developed Sparklines, a great way to display condensed data as an inline graphic. Excel's new version has incorporated the design element — and Microsoft has applied for a patent on them — without so much as a by-your-leave from Tufte."
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Microsoft Applies For Patent On Tufte's Sparklines

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  • Obvious bad patent (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 19, 2009 @11:38PM (#30168110)

    The patent is obviously bad. As the summary states, there is plenty of prior art. If you read the patent, it's also trivial - it's just making graphs smaller.

    Will the USPTO reject it?
    Maybe.

    But even if they do, we also need to ask:
    Will anyone at Microsoft be fined or imprisoned for applying for this bogus patent?
    Unfortunately, not.

  • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Thursday November 19, 2009 @11:39PM (#30168122) Journal

    A comment on the blog post [harvard.edu] discussing the feature (to which TFS links) says:

    They haven’t tried to patent sparklines, but the use of sparklines in Excel. I.e. the automatic updating of a sparkline embedded in a spreadsheet.

    Cue the posts on how obvious and stupid the patent is regardless of this below. Point is, it's not an attempt on something already claimed by someone.

    • by Sockatume (732728)

      We're two for two, then.

    • by Opportunist (166417) on Thursday November 19, 2009 @11:50PM (#30168218)

      Ok, so if I have to push a button to update it, it's not covered? If I don't embed it but, say, just have an external application retrieve data from a spreadsheet, it's not covered?

      Yes, I'm hanging on technicalities. But when you look at it closely, the whole software patent BS is about technicalities and not much more. We're talking about (usually) so obvious applications that a 5 year old wouldn't only get the idea but actually say "duh" when you present it to him.

      Maybe that would be a good metric. The patent clerc should tell his 5 year old about the idea. If he says "duh", it's not patentable.

      • Of course it is, it's all bullshit. The whole system is fucked. But any company that doesn't try to patent as much bullshit as they can will be sued by some asshole and at best pay a boatload of legal fees. Any idiot can see that these companies must play the game or it will cost them. Bit of a prisoner's dilemma.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by westlake (615356)

        We're talking about (usually) so obvious applications that a 5 year old wouldn't only get the idea but actually say "duh" when you present it to him.

        The 5 year may "get" the idea.

        That doesn't mean he can produce the machine or device or program that puts the idea to work in new and interesting ways.

        To the patent examiner, "obvious" has to mean more than "twenty-twenty hindsight."

        If the "sparkline" is so obvious and useful an idea and so easily implemented in your spreadsheet program why isn't it there now

        • by gtall (79522)

          "If the "sparkline" is so obvious and useful an idea and so easily implemented in your spreadsheet program why isn't it there now?"

          Uh...you know, MS has a lock on spreadsheets and they only just thought of it.

        • by fbjon (692006)
          Are there automatically updating graphs in spreadsheets? A sparkline is ultimately a graph or other image with a small format. If an automatically updating image isn't obvious, whatever the image may be, I don't know what is.
        • by hey! (33014)

          Whether or not the "inventor" is capable of producing a device or program is irrelevant. The question is whether he has invented anything.

          This is not an easy question. Inventions are almost always composed of previous inventions. Back when mechanical timepieces were being developed to improve navigation, inventors were constantly tinkering with ways to improve them. These were arrangements of preexisting machine parts like levers and springs. So does *every* distinct mechanical watch design amount to a

        • A patent should protect the research done. The idea is to encourage people to show their results and in return they get a time limited exclusive right to use, so others can build on top of their research, instead of having to hide their discoveries from the opposition to protect their investment.

          Now please show me what investment, what research, what ROI is to be protected here? It's about monopolizing a trivial idea. It's the exact opposite of what patents are about. Not more research and more development,

        • by Hatta (162192)

          If the "sparkline" is so obvious and useful an idea and so easily implemented in your spreadsheet program why isn't it there now?

          It is, it's called a graph. Just don't show the axes and scale it down. Voila. "Sparkline"

    • Specifically... (Score:3, Informative)

      by Sockatume (732728)

      The most general claim of the patent, claim number 1, is:

      associating a sparkline with a location in a document to provide a visual representation of one or more data values included in the document;associating with the sparkline a data source within the document including the one or more data values; associating the sparkline with one or more presentation options; generating the sparkline according to the one or more data values and the one or more associated presentation options by generating the selected

      • Re:Specifically... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by lahvak (69490) on Friday November 20, 2009 @01:31AM (#30168702) Homepage Journal

        That's pretty interesting. If I remember correctly, there is a LaTeX package for creating sparklines, it uses data that can be embedded in the document, it takes additional parameters that influence the look of the sparkline, and if you change the data a re-run latex, the sparkline changes to reflect the new data, while preserving the look given by the additional parameters. Add to it a system that watches your file and rerun latex every time to see a change in order to generate a preview (I believe I have seen at least one such editor), and it seems to me exactly like what they are describing. I don't quite understand what they mean by "matrix of points proportional to the associated location in the document". If that is the only difference, it really seems too little to deserve a patent.

        • I believe that phrase refers to the mapping of 'point size' of the fonts in the document to the size of the graphic to render to match the height of the current font being used. Basically a table of size mappings, which is an OBVIOUS requirement for any such embeded graphic rendering system. Sure, you can create a formula to calculate the size mapping, but what is the real difference? A table probably is fewer bites of memory than the code required to generate the mapping dynamically.

          Big deal. Obvious. S

        • "matrix of points proportional to the associated location in the document"

          I am pretty sure this means that the sparkline resizes to fit its containing cell(s) when you drag the row/column resize handles at the edges, or some other process causes the cell(s) to be resized.

        • by vegiVamp (518171)
          A sparkline (or any graphic) is a matrix of points (pixels), that they in this case make proportional (resize to fit) the associated location (insertion point) in your document.

          Part of what they're trying to patent, is sizing an inline graphic to the same height as your font.
          • by lahvak (69490)

            Part of what they're trying to patent, is sizing an inline graphic to the same height as your font.

            Which, if I understand it correctly, is exactly what the sparkline LaTeX package does. And, the package first appeared in 2004.

            • by vegiVamp (518171)
              Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not defending their patent claim, just responding to your query as to what exactly they meant by that.
      • by Zordak (123132)
        No, it isn't. The patent expressly treats generic sparklines as prior art. From the "Background" section of the patent, where you put things that you admit are prior art:

        [0001]Sparklines are small graphics embedded in a document, such as a text document or a spreadsheet, among the words, numbers, images or other content of the document. Sparklines can be used to graphically represent the content of one or more neighboring cells to provide a visual representation of the data. There are at least two advantages to using sparklines. First, as a "picture paints a thousand words," at a glance, a graph can quickly clearly show values, trends, and similar information. Second, by presenting such a graph in context within the document as opposed to presenting the graph on a separate page or screen, a viewer can more readily appreciate the information represented and/or compare the represented information with that represented by other sparklines.

        [0002]In the case of creating sparkline graphs, conventionally, sparklines are created manually, often by simulating the generation of bars with a set of segment fonts that represent parts of bars, lines, or other graph features. Alternatively, a user could manually could select data and manually generate a chart, then try to scale the chart to fit the desired space.

        Sparklines are also used as elements of the claims. You can't use them as elements if you're claiming sparklines. This application may or may not have allowable claims, but it is clearly not trying to claim sparklines themselves. It's claiming an improvement on sparklines, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, including withou

    • by sohp (22984) <snewton @ i o . c om> on Friday November 20, 2009 @12:26AM (#30168392) Homepage

      Sorry, but taking an existing invention and just taking on "in Excel" or "using a computer" does not make it a new invention. That seems to be the way the USPTO treats those magic words, though.

      • Sorry, but taking an existing invention and just taking on "in Excel" or "using a computer" does not make it a new invention. That seems to be the way the USPTO treats those magic words, though.

        [Citation needed]

        And I mean an actual citation, not another Slashdot article with a misleading headline or summary about how "zomg the patent office allowed a patent for doing x... on the internet!" Find me an issued patent that has "on the internet" or "on a computer" as the sole inventive limitation of a claim.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by mysidia (191772)

      This is just a synthesis of existing technologies.

      Spreadsheet software already automatically updates graphs and charts based on changes in the spreadsheet.

      A sparkline is nothing more than a graph reduced in size and placed in-line within the text.

      It follows that a combination of the existing graph technology, with the reduction in size, automatically leads to a sparkline that automatically updates.

      Nothing new or novel is accomplished by the combination, so the synthesis isn't an invention.

    • by ChaosDiscord (4913) * on Friday November 20, 2009 @01:12AM (#30168630) Homepage Journal
      Well, golly, I've got a very small chart in a spreadsheet. And you're suggesting that I could dynamically update that chart? Wow! I would never have thought of that! Truly a breakthrough that must have taken years of research and is totally worth a patent.
      • by Fred_A (10934)

        Well, golly, I've got a very small chart in a spreadsheet. And you're suggesting that I could dynamically update that chart? Wow! I would never have thought of that! Truly a breakthrough that must have taken years of research and is totally worth a patent.

        It's a real shame that now that it's patented I'll still be stuck with updating my graphs in OpenOffice by adding pixels with the Gimp after figuring them out with my calculator. I could have saved hours with this !

        Damn you Microsoft !

        • by Zordak (123132)

          It's a real shame that now that it's patented

          Except it's not. You can file any old thing you want, and it will get published after 18 months, regardless of whether it has a snowball's chance in Hell of actually getting allowed. At the 18 month mark, few applications have even been taken up for examination.

    • by jipn4 (1367823) on Friday November 20, 2009 @01:12AM (#30168632)

      It's not just "stupid and obvious", there is plenty of prior art, and it follows from standard engineering principles.

      Point is, it's not an attempt on something already claimed by someone.

      Yes, it is. If sparklines are public domain and updating graphs dynamically is public domain, then so is the (obvious) combination. The technique belongs to all of us.

      So, Microsoft isn't just stealing from another inventor here, they are stealing from all of us, which is even worse.

    • by sheriff_p (138609)

      Did you look at the link? It links to a website that ... provides the technology to embed Sparklines in Excel.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by drinkypoo (153816)

      That is a load of dingo's kidneys, because nobody had to manually generate sparklines, either. There are already numerous systems which dynamically generate them as needed, for example a drupal module [drupal.org]. This is a ridiculous patent, as completely insane as any "business method" patent, except instead of taking a common business model and adding "on the internet", it's taking an already-accepted practice and adding "in excel". By any reasonable standard, this is a bad patent application.

    • by vegiVamp (518171)
      I'm not trying to patent NTFS. I'm patenting using NTFS on my computer.
  • Opposing patents (Score:4, Interesting)

    by StreetStealth (980200) on Thursday November 19, 2009 @11:40PM (#30168134) Journal

    This is one of those issues I'd love to hear a real patent attorney weigh in on: If someone files a patent on something you can prove you demonstrated publicly at an earlier date, what are your options? Can you file an opposition to the patent? How does it work?

    • Re:Opposing patents (Score:5, Informative)

      by Grond (15515) on Friday November 20, 2009 @12:20AM (#30168342) Homepage

      This is one of those issues I'd love to hear a real patent attorney weigh in on: If someone files a patent on something you can prove you demonstrated publicly at an earlier date, what are your options? Can you file an opposition to the patent? How does it work?

      I am not an attorney (I'm an academic) and this is not legal advice. If you ever find yourself in a situation like this you should consult a competent patent attorney in your jurisdiction. To be clear, when I use the word 'you' in this post I mean the generic 'you,' not you personally.

      Here's the basic flowchart. Has the other party filed an application or received a patent? If they've already received a patent, then your primary option is to put the patent into reexamination. To do this requires evidence of a substantial new question of patentability (i.e., something new the examiner or the courts haven't looked at yet) and the payment of a fee. You can either put it into ex parte reexamination, where you submit your evidence and the patent office takes it from there, or you can put it into inter partes reexamination, where the patent office holds a sort of mini trial with you arguing against the patent's validity and the patent owner arguing for it.

      If the patent holder is actually demanding a license, threatening a lawsuit, etc, then you may also have the option of filing what's called a declaratory judgment lawsuit where you ask a court to determine whether the patent is valid or not.

      If things are still at the application stage, your options are much more limited. You can submit prior art to the patent office, or, in the rare circumstance that you also have a pending patent application on the same invention, then the patent office may declare what's called an interference and try to figure out who invented the claimed invention first.

    • This is one of those issues I'd love to hear a real patent attorney weigh in on: If someone files a patent on something you can prove you demonstrated publicly at an earlier date, what are your options? Can you file an opposition to the patent? How does it work?

      Anyone can cite prior art to the USPTO on a pending application, even anonymously (at your written request). You must provide a written explanation of the pertinency and manner of applying the prior art to at least one claim of the patent. This is completely free. See 35 USC 301.

      This being Slashdot, I should remind readers that filing tons of citations of fake prior art in an attempt to bury the Examiner could result in fines and/or jail time.

      If the patent has issued, you can request a reexamination. Agai

    • by Zordak (123132)

      This is one of those issues I'd love to hear a real patent attorney weigh in on: If someone files a patent on something you can prove you demonstrated publicly at an earlier date, what are your options? Can you file an opposition to the patent? How does it work?

      With the preface that this is not legal advice, I don't represent you, and you should not rely on this as a legal opinion for any reason whatsoever, this post is for entertainment purposes only, and anybody who relies on a random post on Slashdot as legal advice deserves whatever they get, you have several options actually. (Also, note that this isn't the case here. Microsoft is claiming an improvement on sparklines. It may or may not be an allowable patent, but it is not Tufte's invention they are claim

  • A Few Points (Score:5, Informative)

    by Grond (15515) on Friday November 20, 2009 @12:02AM (#30168254) Homepage

    First, the actual claims are considerably narrower than just 'any and all uses of sparklines.' The broadest claim is about the use of sparklines in a dynamically updated electronic document. Most of the narrower claims have to do visual effects, the handling of null values in the spreadsheet, etc. This is pretty tame stuff.

    Second, this is a newly filed application. The examiner will almost certainly come back with multiple rejections based on obviousness, and the claims will likely be narrowed in response. Like most negotiations, the parties start off with extreme positions and work towards compromise.

    Third, the patent application already cites Tufte (along with a dozen other pieces of prior art) in the Information Disclosure Statement. In other words: Microsoft gave the patent examiner many important pieces of prior art. The examiner will no doubt find many more. This is all publicly available through the Patent Office's Patent Application Information Retrieval [uspto.gov] system.

    Fourth, there is no need for Microsoft to acknowledge Tufte as an inventor on the patent application. Inventorship in the patent context is a legal term of art with a specific meaning. The fact that Microsoft said that Tufte invented sparklines is not the damning piece of evidence many are assuming it is (and recall from point three, above, that Microsoft acknowledged Tufte in its IDS). First, Tufte invented sparklines more than a year before the filing date, so any patentable claims must be a non-obvious improvement upon or use of sparklines, not sparklines themselves. Second, Tufte clearly did not work with the Microsoft inventors, so he cannot be a co-inventor of anything claimed in this application.

    Once again non-experts hear hoofbeats and scream 'Zebra Stampede!' The comments on Tufte's site, for example, are a joke, an absolute mess of uninformed speculation. Given the wealth of publicly available information on patents and patent application, the Slashdot editors should do more to fact check these stories before publishing them.

    Finally, I'll just tack on that if sparklines are so great and this is all so obvious, then surely there's an open source version that predates this application. Remember, though, that this application was filed on May 7, 2008, so the open source version would need to predate that, preferably (but not necessarily) by a year or more. That would actually be an important piece of prior art.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Akir (878284)

      The examiner will almost certainly come back with multiple rejections based on obviousness [....]

      You're saying this about the patent system that approved the patents on swinging on a swing [google.com] and using a laser pointer as a cat toy [google.com]?

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Grond (15515)

        The examiner will almost certainly come back with multiple rejections based on obviousness [....]

        You're saying this about the patent system that approved the patents on swinging on a swing and using a laser pointer as a cat toy?

        I said rejections would be made, not that Microsoft wouldn't be able to overcome them with arguments or amendments. And a quick check shows that rejections were filed in both cases*. Both patents have since been abandoned for failure to pay the maintenance fees, by the way.

        * Technically, the record shows that one and two office actions were filed, respectively. Each office a

    • Re:A Few Points (Score:4, Informative)

      by barath_s (609997) <barath.sundar@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Friday November 20, 2009 @01:05AM (#30168606)
      Re: Predating May 7 2008 :

      http://www.dailydoseofexcel.com/archives/2006/02/05/in-cell-charting/ [dailydoseofexcel.com] https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=7603152763857688635&postID=4147846911463078558&pli=1 [blogger.com] Note especially comments by Bob Phillips and jon Peltier, in addition to the post by Fabrice on starting in 2005.

      Plus, I'm not sure why you emphasize open source implementations that predate it. Did you really mean to imply that if I had a closed source implementation that predated it, it would not be prior art ?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Grond (15515)

        Well, see, there you go. That's the kind of prior art worth submitting to the patent office, assuming the examiner doesn't find it.

        Plus, I'm not sure why you emphasize open source implementations that predate it. Did you really mean to imply that if I had a closed source implementation that predated it, it would not be prior art ?

        No, I didn't mean to imply that at all. I just didn't realize Excel was capable of doing in-cell charting through VB or a plug-in, so I assumed a prior art implementation would

    • Re:A Few Points (Score:4, Interesting)

      by dbIII (701233) on Friday November 20, 2009 @01:54AM (#30168788)

      Finally, I'll just tack on that if sparklines are so great and this is all so obvious, then surely there's an open source version that predates this application.

      The wikipedia article lists several, but for all I know they may have appeared there after your post.
      As for the patent being of restricted use that is true but ultimately somewhat petty. It is like appending "on a plane" onto a mention of anything.

    • by Sabriel (134364)

      Finally, I'll just tack on that if sparklines are so great and this is all so obvious, then surely there's an open source version that predates this application.

      There very likely is one. Of course, since it wouldn't have involved attempts to monetise somebody else's shoulders, it might involve actual work (hah) tracking it down.

      Patents have become a broken window. The system was intended to reward what was once the rare spark of applied creative genius - it does not scale to cope with billions of educated i

    • by deblau (68023)

      Second, this is a newly filed application. The examiner will almost certainly come back with multiple rejections based on obviousness, and the claims will likely be narrowed in response. Like most negotiations, the parties start off with extreme positions and work towards compromise.

      And an invention is obvious if it is merely "the predictable use of prior-art elements according to their established functions" to produce an expected result. Thanks, KSR [wikipedia.org].

    • by radtea (464814)

      the Slashdot editors should do more to fact check these stories before publishing them.

      They would get fewer page-views from the outraged and ignorant if they did that, which is the only reason I can see for them to persist in posting patent stories with false headlines and misleading summaries.

  • Over on the Microsoft Excel Team Blog [msdn.com] they even give Edward Tufte credit as the inventor of these sparklines.

    For Excel 2010 we’ve implemented sparklines, “intense, simple, word-sized graphics”, as their inventor Edward Tufte describes them in his book Beautiful Evidence. Sparklines help bring meaning and context to numbers being reported and, unlike a chart, are meant to be embedded into what they are describing:

  • by gmuslera (3436) on Friday November 20, 2009 @12:22AM (#30168362) Homepage Journal
    They should patent Tourette instead, so maybe the rest of the world stop getting its symptoms every time they make a move.
  • Not too impressed. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by DerekLyons (302214)

    I wouldn't complain about Microsoft's activity when you link to Wikipedia rather than the author's own page on sparklines [edwardtufte.com].

  • by Device666 (901563) on Friday November 20, 2009 @03:45AM (#30169030)

    Microsoft patented the use of sparklines as a visualization for a single cell in a grid. In the US patent system, that's night and day different. They recognise Edward Tufte on their website [msdn.com] for his invention of the sparkline: "For Excel 2010 we've implemented sparklines, "intense, simple, word-sized graphics", as their inventor Edward Tufte describes them in his book Beautiful Evidence."

    If they would patent the sparkline they would have no claim because of broadly published prior art, under 35 U.S.C. 301: "Any person at any time may cite to the Office in writing prior art consisting of patents or printed publications which that person believes to have a bearing on the patentability of any claim of a particular patent. If the person explains in writing the pertinency and manner of applying such prior art to at least one claim of the patent, the citation of such prior art and the explanation thereof will become a part of the official file of the patent. At the written request of the person citing the prior art, his or her identity will be excluded from the patent file and kept confidential."

    Speaking from an information visualisation perspective Microsoft badly implemented sparklines in excel.

    • by Lord Lode (1290856) on Friday November 20, 2009 @04:44AM (#30169320)
      So they patent putting it in a single cell? How obvious is that? Putting something else than text in a cell? No matter what, it's a graph, it's line art, an image, images and lines have been rendered by computers for decades, no matter if it's in a cell of a spread sheet or in a window or in whatever else, no matter if the image is synchronized with some numbers from somewhere else and what not, I fail to see any innovation at all, it's just plotting of a graph based on numbers.
  • Sure, the patent application may not go through, most likely because of the non-obvious/inventive step requirement (even if you find something looking like prior art, it may not look like it to a lawyer).

    It doesn't make the (american) patent system any less stupid though:
    Microsoft obviously thought the chances were good enough (> 0%) to spend some money filing a patent. It would (almost) be business malpractice if they didn't. Similar patents have been granted before (progress bars, one click shopping et

  • I've done it... (Score:5, Informative)

    by mok000 (668612) on Friday November 20, 2009 @06:57AM (#30169826)

    I've used sparklines that were updated "automatically" from the values in a database. The software in question tracked the coffee consumption pr. person in the lab, and displayed it using sparklines on a web page (no longer online). The sparkline code was a PHP snippet I found on the net somewhere. There must be plenty of prior art.

  • by backwardMechanic (959818) on Friday November 20, 2009 @07:02AM (#30169850) Homepage
    Am I really the only person looking at this and thinking 'it's a graph'?

    The rest is all visual design and auto-updating.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kegon (766647)

      It's a graph and it's small. I think Tufte's point is that small graphs can communicate information without the cruft of detailed axes, labels and so on.

      However, this is not a new idea. It has been reinvented by every 7 year old learning how to draw a graph, to be howled at by a teacher for not adding useful detailed axes, labels and so on.

      If you read Tufte's website though you may get the impression that it's a brand new idea.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by coult (200316)

        I've always thought that Tufte isoverblown. I mean, sparklines - duh, its a small graph without axes. The famous "Napeleon's army" chart is really not any more enlightening or informative than just reading a paragraph or two and looking at some tables of numbers.

  • So what is the argument really about? If these charts are so prevalent, what is Tufte complaining for? As anyone knows who's been following Tufte for as long as I have knows that his real contribution to the field of graphics is his minimalist approach - his crusade to remove the graphics of the world from "chartjunk". His goal is to present the user with the most amount of information using the least amount of features. So, aside from a nifty name, to what exactly is Tufte laying claim? The same coul

  • by OneSmartFellow (716217) on Friday November 20, 2009 @10:16AM (#30171322)
    How can anyone patent a graph ?

    I don't care how small it is, or whether it has axis labels, or what, it's a damned graph (or chart, which ever word you prefer)
  • I'm honestly not sure what exactly MS is patenting.

    This doesn't look like an attemptt to patent sparkilnes, much as the headline wants to paint it that way (and many commenters seem to be playing along). If it were, the claims would describe how to visualize data as a sparkline; instead, right from the very beginning of claim 1, they take the concept of a sparkline as a given.

    So it's not sparklines; its the association of a sparline to data and presentation parametesr in an Excel document that they msut be

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