In 2007, Steve Jobs stood on stage, listing the benefits of Apple's then-new iPhone touchscreen. "You can do multi-finger gestures on it," he said, moving his hands back and forth in the now-familiar pinch-to-zoom motion. Then he paused, and his expression changed. "And boy, have we patented it." The crowd laughed and began applauding as the word "Patented!" appeared on the screen behind him.

You can draw a straight line from that classic Jobs moment to last week, when a jury decisively agreed with Apple that Samsung had copied the iPhone too closely. But you can also draw a line from that moment to another, much more insidious phenomenon: the persistent belief that Apple has a definitive patent on the pinch-to-zoom gesture.

"And boy, have we patented it."

This myth is everywhere at the moment, in the wake of the Samsung trial: Fast Company. The Washington Post. MIT's Technology Review. Slate. Here's Business Insider suggesting it. Kevin Drum basically tore his hair out in Mother Jones trying to figure it out. Nick Wingfield put it in his New York Times piece about the lawsuit — and much to his credit, emailed me after he saw my increasingly-frustrated tweets about the subject.

So let's just be extremely clear about this: the jury ruled that 21 of 24 accused Samsung phones infringed claim 8 of Apple patent 7,844,915, which specifically covers a programming interface which detects if one finger on a screen is scrolling or two or more fingers are doing something else. It is one possible step along the road to pinch-to-zoom, but it is definitely not pinch-to-zoom itself. And — crucially — it may not be that hard to design around. Samsung may have even done it by accident: the jury examined three of its accused phones (all of which support pinch-to-zoom) and decided they didn't infringe.

Here's the full text of claim 8 — to infringe the patent, the jury was required to find that Samsung's devices infringe every element. Avoid one element and you're off the hook. Remember that when you read the key portion that I've bolded:

  • A machine readable storage medium storing executable program instructions which when executed cause a data processing system to perform a method comprising:
  • receiving a user input, the user input is one or more input points applied to a touch-sensitive display that is integrated with the data processing system;
  • creating an event object in response to the user input;
  • determining whether the event object invokes a scroll or gesture operation by distinguishing between a single input point applied to the touch-sensitive display that is interpreted as the scroll operation and two or more input points applied to the touch-sensitive display that are interpreted as the gesture operation;
  • issuing at least one scroll or gesture call based on invoking the scroll or gesture operation;
  • responding to at least one scroll call, if issued, by scrolling a window having a view associated with the event object; and
  • responding to at least one gesture call, if issued, by scaling the view associated with the event object based on receiving the two or more input points in the form of the user input.

So why did I bold the part about single inputs being interpreted as scroll operations? That's exactly what Samsung went after in front of the jury — they tried to show their accused devices scrolling with two fingers on the screen. Two finger scrolling is beyond the claims of the '915 patent, so any device that implements it likely doesn't infringe. (Unfortunately for Samsung, the lawyers got caught in a bit of deception while trying to show off two-finger scrolling — they were pinching and zooming at the same time. Oops.)

According to Google, "Apple claims a very specific software implementation, and the implementation is different in Jelly Bean."

Now, two-finger scrolling is a pretty lame workaround, but it's far from the only way to avoid '915, and Google and the entire industry quickly designed around Apple's patents on bounceback scrolling and slide-to-unlock. It's silly to think they haven't worked out a good way to avoid '915 as well. And it appears they have: according to a Google spokesperson, "Apple's '915 patent claims a very specific software implementation, and the implementation is different in Jelly Bean." Astute industry observers will note that the Nexus 7 running Jelly Bean has pinch-to-zoom.

Looking a little closer, Chrome in Jelly Bean neatly sidesteps the '915 patent by allowing you to always pan around in multiple directions with one finger, whereas Mobile Safari in iOS generally locks you to a one-dimensional scroll when you start moving with one finger. Those are different behaviors — and as a bonus, always panning and never locking to a scroll also neatly avoids Apple patent 7,479,949, which the company's asserted in several other lawsuits.

To be clear, Apple does have a patent on a specific, limited pinch-to-zoom implementation, but as far as I know the company hasn't yet asserted it in any lawsuits, and it seems just as easy to design around as '915. But '915 itself isn't specifically about pinch-to-zoom, and I fully expect the industry to move heaven and earth to implement pinch-to-zoom regardless of Apple's patent portfolio. The people have spoken: they want to pinch their screens, no matter what weird excuses Andy Rubin was making in 2010.

The people have spoken: they want to pinch their screens

So why this persistent myth about Apple' and pinch-to-zoom? A large part of it is because patents are hard for non-lawyers to read and understand, and it's far easier to use a shorthand that obscures important details. Apple's case against Samsung was designed for the jury to recognize interface elements, and that made it particularly easy to slip up: you can fairly call 7,469,381 "the bounceback scrolling," and 7,864,163 "tap-to-zoom," so the lazy slide into calling '915 "pinch-to-zoom" was almost inevitable. It's the media totally blowing the Obama BlackBerry story all over again.

And Apple almost certainly likes the confusion: there's no more distinctive multitouch gesture than pinch-to-zoom, and it's great for Apple if everyone thinks it's patented. Steve Jobs standing on stage doing an exaggerated pinch-to-zoom with his hands right before saying multitouch was patented wasn't some coincidence. It was a master salesman at work — and his work seems to have been extremely effective.