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By | Andrew Orlowski 11th November 2005 08:35

Apple's lockdown patent lacks method and apparatus

Something funny happened on the way to the USPTO

Apple faces an uphill battle to get a crucial patent application accepted, say senior systems experts who have reviewed the proposal.

Apple filed the application in April 2004, and it was published by the US Patents and Trademarks Office last week. If it works as described, the technology will be a key factor in ensuring Mac OS X doesn't run on generic PCs, and only on Apple hardware.

Apple needs to deploy some kind of technique to ensure that Mac OS X remains tied to its own Intel PCs next year, rather than Intel PCs from rival manufacturers. Apple cannot presume that a secure TCPA chip is present, as most PCs on the market don't deploy the chip, and are not TCPA compliant. Without it, Apple's "crown jewels", Mac OS X, will be able to run on generic hardware, priced without the premiums Apple charges for its computer systems.

Apple derives half of its revenue from selling computer systems.

Patent Application (#20050246554) describes a " System and method for creating tamper-resistant code"

Only it doesn't.

"I find it difficult to believe that it was accepted," said one source, a senior systems engineer at a Tier 1 vendor, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"For Apple, the issue is how can we rebuild OS X with a modified compiler so that, without having to change the source code, every single component contains non-obvious operations that check if it's running on a genuine Mac. By non-obvious, that means that it's not easy to do a scan of the binary to remove the checks. If all of the OS X code contains checks distributed throughout, it will be very difficult to make it run on a basic Intel PC," he explained.

The problem with Patent Pub. #20050246554 is that it doesn't describe how it will perform the task.

"There's nothing here to patent," said another senior engineer at a large systems company based in Silicon Valley.

Application '554 appears to contain a lot of wishful thinking, but no specifics.

The abstract inform us that the invention covers:

"A system and method for creating tamper-resistant code .... In one embodiment, the method comprises receiving a first object code block. The method also comprises translating the first object code block into a second code block, wherein the translating includes applying taper-resistance techniques to the first object code block or the second object code block. The method also comprises executing the second object code block."

"Taper? That's the first patent application abstract I've seen with a spelling mistake," said our second source, who hold several system design patents.

The author of '554 presumably intended to write "tamper".

The patent makes 72 claims - one for every conceivable eventuality - without specifying the nature of the invention, our experts agree.

So '554 appears to be a set of Russian dolls, only no invention can be found in the smallest.

What is the purpose of Apple trying to bamboozle the US Patent Office with a bogus patent application? Or was the idea of submitting a patent about code obfuscation which was itself heavily obfuscated too good a practical joke to resist?

There may be a simpler explanation.

Apple's protection of its IP assets is notoriously lax. Last year Apple agreed to pay undisclosed royalties to EU-data for IP related to its online music store. It's currently locked in dispute with Microsoft over patents covering its iPod, which also look like sloppy paperwork. And most famously of all, Apple agreed to license GUI elements to Microsoft which Apple thought only applied to Windows 1.0, but which legitimately permitted Microsoft to incorporate much of Apple's look and feel into subsequent version of Windows.

Clearly, in the Jobs era, Apple lawyers are far better trained at attacking bloggers and DIY publishers than they are at protecting the company's intellectual property assets.

Someone needs to have a word with Steve. ®

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