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Grog

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Reply with quote  #1 
I wasn't sure where the most appropriate place was to post about this but I figured everyone here would be interested to see this:

http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2009/0282325.html

Summary: Microsoft have filed for a patent for sparklines.

sfew

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Reply with quote  #2 
If this is indeed true, it's hard to imagine how Microsoft could justify an attempt to patent something that was clearly invented by Tufte. I've sent an email to the manager at Microsoft whose team is responsible for the implementation of sparklines in MS Excel 2010 to ask about the patent. I'll post his response here once I receive it.

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Stephen Few
sfew

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Reply with quote  #3 
Here's a brief response that I received from Microsoft about their patent application: "Microsoft is not trying to patent Sparklines, but instead an innovation that would allow Sparklines to work more effectively within the Excel environs." I've only skimmed the patent application so far, but in doing so have confirmed that it in fact does not limit itself to Excel.

An important question, I suppose, is if this "innovation" is overly similar to what others have already done to implement sparklines in Excel. It would be interesting to hear from Bonavista Systems to see if Microsoft's patent proposal resembles the approach that they developed years ago.

The one other thing that I've looked for so far in the patent application is an appropriate reference to Tufte as the originator of sparklines. There is a "Background" section in the document, but neither there nor anywhere else in the document is Tufte mentioned. To put it mildly, this strikes me an an egregious sign of disrespect.

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Stephen Few
Grog

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Reply with quote  #4 
I spent a bit of time delving into the details and reading around a bit more and pulled together some observations here: http://www.scottlogic.co.uk/blog/graham/2009/11/microsoft-sparkline-patent/
Marcus

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Reply with quote  #5 

Tableau Software patent for "Small Multiples"

I think there is something interesting to add to this discussion. Where Microsoft might (or might not) get a patent for “sparklines in the grid” (unlikely with the all prior art filings) Tableau Software already has a valid patent for small multiples.

The patent claims all elements of small multiples adding the element of a multidimensional user interface window to manipulate the chart data. But this is not really adding anything as the nature of small multiples is multidimensional.

This is -opposed to Microsoft sparkline patent- a 100% valid patent and I wonder why nobody was opposing when Tableau Software applied for Small Multiples. I can see that is more fun to attack the “bad boys” (Microsoft) but to be fair we must face that also the good boys (Tableau Software) are at least as ruthless patenting everything as Microsoft is - if not worse.

Marcus

Poffes

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Reply with quote  #6 
People may also be interested in the discussion about the patent application on the 'Ask E.T' portion of Tufte's site here:

http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0003Y1&topic_id=1&topic=Ask+E%2eT%2e
sfew

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Reply with quote  #7 
Marcus,

I'm interested in reviewing Tableau's patent for their implementation of small multiples, but the link that you provided doesn't seem to be valid.

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Stephen Few
Marcus

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Reply with quote  #8 
This link should work

http://www.google.com/patents?q=7756907&btnG=Search+Patents

Marcus

sfew

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Reply with quote  #9 
Marcus,

From a brief review of this patent, I don't see the problems that I found in Microsoft's attempt to patent sparklines. Tableau appears to have patented a specific way of constructing a series of related graphs based on the nature of the data, etc. Tableau did not patent "small multiples" in general. Also, unlike Microsoft, Tableau took great care to reference a large body of work that was related to their invention, giving credit where credit was due.

Patent law, along with other types of intellectual property law, in my opinion has become absurd, often doing the opposite of what was originally intended. Patents now often stand in the way of genuine innovation, discouraging progress that would benefit the world. I'm not a fan of the way that many organizations use the law to the disadvantage of others, but I don't detect an attempt by Tableau in this patent to overreach or block others from implementing small multiples in ways that don't duplicate their specific innovation. I'm not an expert in patent law, however, and can at best detect obvious attempts to claim ownership that extends beyond invention in the realm of data visualization, which was certainly the case with Microsoft's attempt to patent sparklines.


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Stephen Few
Marcus

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Reply with quote  #10 

Stephen,

Did you read the claims at the end of the patent? What really matters are the claims, not the specification text in the patent. The specification text mostly serves to support the claims.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claim_%28patent%29

 

And the claims are

 

displaying a graphical user interface window for visualizing the dataset, wherein one of the dimensions is a hierarchical dimension that includes a first dimension level and a second dimension level, the graphical user interface window including a schema display region and a data visualization region, wherein:

the schema display region includes metadata identifying the plurality of measures and dimensions including the first dimension level and the second dimension level, and wherein the schema display region is generated by:

identifying one or more measures from the dataset;

generating a list of the first and second dimension levels and a list of the identified measures; and

displaying the lists of the first and second dimension levels and the identified measures in the schema display region;

the data visualization region includes a first axis shelf, a second axis shelf, and a visual table;

detecting user requests to associate the metadata identifying the first dimension level with the first axis shelf, associate the metadata identifying the second dimension level with the second axis shelf, and associate the metadata of a measure selected from the schema display region with the first or second axis shelf;

in response to the user requests,

forming in the visual table a plurality of panes, each pane having a first axis corresponding to the first dimension level associated with the first axis shelf and a second axis corresponding to the second dimension level associated with the second axis shelf;

dividing the dataset into a plurality of subsets, each subset corresponding to a respective one of the plurality of panes; and

populating each pane in the visual table with a respective subset of the dataset in accordance with the arrangement of the first and second axes, wherein the first and second axes have different directions, further including:

displaying one or more data values associated with the first dimension level in the respective subset along the first axis of the pane;

displaying one or more data values associated with the second dimension level in the respective subset along the second axis of the pane; and

displaying one or more marks in the pane, each mark corresponding to a respective data value associated with the measure in the respective subset.

 

Or shorter, displaying a data set in a pivot table as set of small multiple charts.

 

This claim covers without doubt every pivot table that shows a data set as small multiples.

 

What really bugs me about this is that the USPTO again didn’t properly check for prior art. I have seen exactly what is described above in several other applications, certainly before Tableau filed the app.

Marcus

sfew

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Reply with quote  #11 
Marcus,

These excerpts don't fully define what has been patented, they merely describe aspects of it. If this patent means what you believe, then several software vendors must be paying Tableau for the right to display small multiples, which I doubt is the case. Also, a few products included small multiple displays prior to the original release of Tableau, but Tableau isn't going after them for patent infringement. I have no doubt that these vendors previously patented their implementations of small multiples, which Tableau's patent can't nullify.

Let me say again, however, that I haven't read Tableau's patent carefully and can say whether or not they overreached. As far as I know, however, they haven't been using their patent to prevent implementations of small multiples by others that are not a reproduction of their own work.


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Stephen Few
sfew

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Reply with quote  #12 
Marcus,

These excerpts don't fully define what has been patented. They merely describe aspects of it. If this patent means what you believe, then several software vendors must be paying Tableau for the right to display small multiples, which I doubt is the case. Also, a few products included small multiple displays prior to the original release of Tableau, but Tableau isn't going after them for patent infringement. I have no doubt that these vendors previously patented their implementations of small multiples, which Tableau's patent can't nullify.

Let me say again, however, that I haven't read Tableau's patent carefully and cannot say whether or not they overreached. As far as I know, however, they haven't been using their patent to prevent implementations of small multiples by others that are not a reproduction of their own work.


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Stephen Few
Marcus

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Reply with quote  #13 

Stephen,

What we have above are not merely excerpts of the patent, it’s the most important part, the patent claims:

“A patent is a right to exclude others from making, using, selling or offering for sale the subject matter defined by the claims. […] claims define, in technical terms, the extent of the protection conferred by a patent”

Marcus

sfew

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Reply with quote  #14 
Marcus,

I understand what a patent is. What I'm saying is that the patent isn't defined by individual clauses, but by the whole. For the patent to be infringed, someone must duplicate everything that is defined in the patent as the invention, not just individual characteristics.

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Stephen Few
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