Cyberclinic: Hold the phone! One tiny Apple patent can't be evil

  • @rhodri

After reading news stories with headlines like "Apple wants to block iPhone users from filming live events", you'd be forgiven for thinking Apple wants to block iPhone users from filming live events. Media outlets have seized this opportunity to give the technology giant a kicking, placing calls to such noted analysts as Tinie Tempah and the Kaiser Chiefs' Ricky Wilson to ask them what they think. ("Bad idea" and "not sure" respectively.) Even Mashable, a technology blog not predisposed to hysteria, told its readers to "enjoy that experience while you can", causing fury to pour forth from people appalled at the apparent savaging of their digital rights.

Apple merely filed a patent application, 18 months ago. It filed quite a few. It does every week. Someone at Apple's Cupertino HQ could come up with an idea for remote-controlled ravioli and the patent forms would be fetched from the cupboard. It's what technology companies do to protect themselves and it explains why Apple, Nokia, Intel, Samsung and countless others are perpetually involved in legal tussles over patent violations. This application attempts to patent the following process: if a smartphone camera senses an infra-red beam containing a stream of data, something might happen on your phone as a result. That's all. So it might display information if it's pointed at a museum exhibit. It might prevent you from taking photographs of paintings at art exhibitions – or, yes, from filming Primal Scream at Wembley Arena while some 6ft-tall bloke gyrates in front of you. But it's just a patent application. It hasn't even been approved, let alone deployed. But sensationalist reporting drives web traffic, so "reasons" for this patent are stated with greater confidence than even exists in the inventor's mind.

I've read that it's a move to placate "angry" broadcasters who, we're told, are furious at the way their professionally recorded concert footage is devalued by someone uploading woozy footage of the same show to YouTube, in which the music is drowned out by two people having a chat about going to Nando's afterwards. But why would a venue install infrared equipment to disable Apple devices only? And even if this were about to happen – which it isn't – what's with the righteous anger? Ten years ago, if you'd taken a camcorder into the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre to film a show you'd have had it confiscated. Smartphone technology may have rubber-stamped the practice of filming performances without permission, but that doesn't mean you have the moral right to complain when someone says you can't.

When you next hear a scare story about, say, Apple's recent heart-monitoring patent being used to secretly store details of your propensity to succumb to a stroke, or its forthcoming High Tactility Magic Gloves having the potential to be used in smash'n'grab raids on supermarkets, remember that it's speculation based on the ideas of an inventor. Nothing more.

A couple of Twitter accounts, one at @englishassheis, the other at @soapmyvisage, are posting marvellous examples of badly translated English from old foreign phrasebooks: "Give us a pigeon couple, a piece of ham and a salad. What have us expended?" They're funny because they're supposed to be authoritative, but badly translated prose that's endemic on the web – mainly because of Google Translate – is just annoying. While Translate is a brilliantly realised method of getting the gist of foreign text, its automated content-generation tool has led to spammers publishing thousands of blogs that are simply lifted, translated (badly) and reposted.

Google is withdrawing the automated service later this year. Minimising spam content on the web would be a noble enough reason, but a blog at suggests another: the more badly translated content there is online, the more difficult it is for Google's translating algorithm to improve by learning from properly translated text. Translators around the globe will surely permit themselves a small, triumphant whoop at this news, but hopefully there'll still be enough bad translation around to give us the magic of sentences like: "Here is a horse who have a bad looks. Give me another; I will not that."