Microsoft patents 'record button on a computer system'

And why the effort took more than 7 years is a bit of a mystery

record button patent

Chances are you read that headline and muttered something like, "Aw, c'mon, a patent for a record button?"

Me, too, although at least one patent expert says such muttering may be unwarranted in this case. (Unlike with Microsoft's patent on a "butt hinge with integrally formed butt straps," which proved to be not only funny but erroneous.)

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Here's how the button patent is described:

A record button that facilitates audiovisual input into a computer system without requiring manual interaction (direct manipulation interaction) with software. The record button may be grouped with transport controls, a standalone button, or grouped with other controls. The record button may be actuated with different types of actuation techniques, each of which may correspond to a different audio and/or video operating mode, which may be user configurable. A record light may be provided to notify the user of the current recording mode via variable colors and/or flash patterns. The record button can work in conjunction with a camera button and with manual software switching of recording modes.

Well, if you put it that way, I still don't know whether this patent is worthy ... or worthy of ridicule. I did know that Microsoft first applied for it on May 5, 2003 and it wasn't until Tuesday, seven-plus years later, that the patent was granted.

So I asked Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Julie Samuels to take a look and offer up her off-the-cuff assessment. And, since a "record button on a computer system" seems so, well, 2003, I also asked whether she thinks the patent might turn up playing a role someday not only on "computer systems" as the term is commonly used but elsewhere. Her reply:  

"I've had a chance to take a brief look at this patent, and I'm afraid the story is not so clear-cut. First, the claims are more complicated than just a simple 'record button.'  (And), to answer your question, yes, I do think it could be applied to smart phones and other devices."

Complicated? Oh, yes. You can read all 39 claims regarding what this button and associated technology will do here. Here's a bit of the description offered:

For example, when working with a document, a single press of the record button may insert an audio annotation into the document at an appropriate location, such as at the cursor location in a word processing document, a selected cell of a spreadsheet, and so on. When listening to a voicemail message recorded in the computer, a press of the record button will allow the user to record an audio reply to that message, e.g., for sending to the party that left the message.

The record button may be configured to respond to different methods of actuation, each of which may correspond to a different audio operating mode. For example, a single-pressed-and-release actuation may be handled as a straight audio recording operation that passes audio into a top-level window, a hold-and-release (hold for some threshold amount of time but release before too long) actuation may be handled as a speech-to-text conversion prior to sending the text to the top-level window, while a hold-indefinitely actuation may be handled as a command and control function, e.g., recognize the command and pass it to the operating system. A double-press mode can send voice recognized commands to the top-level window. Video may be entered as well, such as when the audio mode is selected to provide an audio stream to a program, the application context will accept video, and the camera shutter position is open.

It's not a simple record button.

As for what took the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office so long to make the call? That's not clear.

"It looks like the seven-year hold-up was the Patent Office's fault," says Samuels. "Microsoft did not get its first (preliminary ruling) for seven years, which is an incredibly long time.  And, apparently recognizing this, the Patent Office extended the patent's life for 2,292 days. "

They "why" isn't evident from the documentation, but it would seem that even a Microsoft can find itself at the mercy of bureaucratic bungling.

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