"Patent Pending?" iA's Militant Stance on Syntax Control in Writer Pro [UPDATED]

12/26/13 - See update and postscript at the end of this article regarding iA's statement that it will abandon its patent applications. Also, please see The Verge's writeup on Writer Pro if you'd like an introduction to the software and the Syntax Control feature.

Oliver Reichenstein, one of iA’s principals (he appears in the Writer Pro video posted to The Verge) has made some cryptic and vaguely threatening statements to developers about Writer Pro’s new Syntax Control feature:

iA also uses the (TM) symbol when mentioning Syntax Control on the Writer Pro website. And in a recent blog post, Mr. Reichenstein included a short blurb on Syntax Control, saying:

Syntax Control is a solid innovation, one we’ve been working on for more than four years. As with every serious design, once you have seen how it works, you can figure out cheap ways to copy it. We’ve trademarked and obtained patent pending for Syntax Control. If you want it in your text editor, you can get a license from us. It’s going to be a fair deal.

This has miffed other writing app developers like The Soulmen, makers of Ulysses III and Daedalus Touch.

So, does iA actually have the exclusive right to the idea of Syntax Control, putting unsuspecting future developers on a collision course with iA? It appears the answer is no. What’s more, iA’s claims of beating everyone to the punch appear to be disingenuous at best.

This may be different if iA had designed its syntax recognition from scratch. But in fact, the heavy lifting is already baked into Apple’s developer platform. Since iOS 5 and OS X 10.7, Apple has provided a class called NSLinguisticTagger that segments natural-language text and labels the text with various bits of information, including parts of speech. NSHipster wrote a quick blurb about the class back in 2012, and other apps like Phraseology have already showcased similar syntax-parsing technology.

Trademark?

The trademark databases for the U.S., E.U., and the International Register all come up empty when searching for "Syntax Control." And unfortunately for iA, it’s very unlikely that iA can obtain a trademark registration for "Syntax Control" because the name almost certainly fails to function as a trademark. In the United States and the EU, trademarks must be "distinctive" to be registrable. The words used must not merely describe the attached goods or services. This is why, for example, many companies can use the name "Raisin Bran" for breakfast cereals — the name describes the goods (the cereal) and does not distinguish the goods’ source.

iA isn’t out of options. Rights holders are not required to register their trademarks (though there are numerous benefits). In the U.S., iA can obtain what’s known as a "Supplemental Registration" and can eventually claim to have "acquired distinctiveness" in an otherwise-descriptive trademark, but in the U.S. that requires proof that the mark has been used exclusively by iA for five years.

Patent?

Same story with a patent search — application searches in the U.S. and Europe did not show any pending applications from Information Architects or Mr. Reichenstein. iA does have a pending patent application for "Focus Mode," which was a feature of the original iA Writer. But there’s no evidence that iA has even applied for a patent for Syntax Control aside from a throwaway statement that iA has "obtained patent pending."

And what would be the basis for the patent in light of Apple providing the underlying functionality? iA hasn’t said.

UPDATE

Mr. Reichenstein made this tweet one day after I made this post, with a screenshot of a receipt for a provisional patent application:

In the United States, a typical patent application isn't published until 18 months after it is filed. And what's pictured here is a provisional patent application, which are never published for public viewing or examined by the USPTO. Provisional patent applications require the applicant to file a full, "non-provisional" patent application within one year. If the full patent application is approved, the applicant has patent rights that date back to the filing date of the provisional application. To iA's credit, a provisional patent application does entitle the inventor to use say the idea is "Patent Pending." But since the application is never examined or published, this doesn't mean iA has protected its idea, or that iA is entitled to a patent at all.

Now, will iA actually get a patent for Syntax Control? Without knowing what ideas are actually claimed in the patent application, it is hard to make a definitive judgment. However, as detailed in the comments below, it appears Apple showcased something very, very similar to Syntax Control at WWDC 2011. This would mean iA's patent application does not have the novelty required to be patentable.

Meanwhile, iA's patent application for "Focus Mode" in the original iA Writer was examined and given a non-final rejection by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on November 5, 2013. The rejection can be viewed here. iA has until February 5, 2014 to respond to the patent examiner's objections.

Copyright!

As it happens iA left out the third prong of intellectual property — and this one actually applies to Syntax Control. In the United States, developers have copyright protection to their source code and, like trademarks, registration isn’t required (though it is required to bring a copyright infringement lawsuit). This doesn’t protect the concept of Syntax Control — only the actual underlying source code.

iA has a compelling new app that may ultimately be quite successful, particularly given its price point. But as more apps begin to use iOS’s syntax-parsing capabilities, it will be interesting to see if iA follows through on its grandiose statements and tries to prevent others from developing "ripoffs" to Syntax Control.

In the meantime, iA’s militant stance on its standout feature doesn’t appear to be grounded in fact. This may well alienate other developers and, ultimately, customers.

UPDATE 12/26/13

iA has tweeted that it will abandon its patent applications. Unless there are also other unpublished patent applications out there, I will assume this refers to the non-provisional application for Focus Mode and the provisional patent application for Syntax Control.

iA has also amended its blog post (particularly the excerpt discussed above) to read:

Syntax Control — distinguishing a specific aspect of the text to assist in editing — is a solid innovation, one we’ve been working on for more than four years. As with every serious design, once you have seen how it works and how effective it is, it seems obvious, but it was a long road to get there. We’ve trademarked and obtained patent pending for Syntax Control. If you want it in your text editor, you can get a license from us. It’s going to be a fair deal. If you want to use it in your text editor, just give us credit for introducing it.

Note also that the post further clarifies what Syntax Control does -- i.e., "distinguish[es] a specific aspect of the text to assist in editing."

Finally, iA had some choice words for yours truly on Twitter. I do grant that I should have clarified my words regarding a patent application for Syntax Control -- that is, provisional patent applications are never published for public viewing, so an application search cannot be conclusive. I hope that oversight did not undermine the aim of this post. I am a fan of iA's software, and I was disappointed and confused by its marketing for Writer Pro and its principal's public comments. I therefore wanted to document the reaction to iA's marketing for Writer Pro and provide some background research for the lay reader who may be unfamiliar with intellectual property.