Cingular Patents The Emoticon, Tells Nabokov Estate to Go Screw

Cingular has patented the emoticon. From Consumer Affairs:

Cingular Wireless has won a patent on the concept of using “emoticons” on mobile phones. The patent applies not only to graphic versions of the ubiquitous smiley/mad face but also to simple text versions. :)

Cingular says the aim of the patent is to enable the displaying of graphics on its subscribers’ handsets, the patent would also prohibit sending simple text versions via a dedicated or programmable key.

Making this patent even more obnoxious, it’s a flagrant corporate flip-off to the real inventor of the emoticon: famous American writer and synaesthete Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, Pale Fire, Pnin and a lot of other truly astonishing works that feature not a single smiley. From his own 1973 patent application for the Nabokovmoticon, published in Strong Opinions:

I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile
some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.

Cingular’s patent is here. We think. The patent number published by Consumer Affairs doesn’t come up with anything on the US Patent Office homepage search.

Update: Looks like the actual patent application is this one, which attempts to lock down the use of a “dedicated key or shared dedicated key” for adding emoticons. You know, like the shared dedicated keys ‘colon’ and ‘closed parenthesis.’


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  1. Paul D says:

    Reminds me of that Onion article entitled “Microsoft patents ones, zeros”

  2. Brian Gee says:

    Maybe if we’re lucky, they’ll license Amazon’s patent and we can purchase emoticons via one-click shopping. ;)

    Sometimes I feel like these companies are filing this crap trying to call the Patent Office’s bluff. Or maybe they just try to keep the Patent Office so bogged down with applications that the only thing they have time to do is stamp “APPROVED” on the cover of each one. I mean, surely they have to reject SOMETHING in order to retain a minimal amount of credibility with real inventors (and the rest of the world)?

    This patent is absurd.

    IANAL, but I’ve read the patent and I’m pretty sure that any AIM, MSN, or Yahoo IM client is prior art that should invalidate it. They all have the button with the smilie emoticon. You click the button and a list of emoticons pops up in some form or another (graphical, text, mixed, etc) and the user selects one and sends it.

    If there’s any doubt, throw AIM on a tablet PC. The tablet is a mobile device/mobile station with an LCD touchscreen, so a single keystroke (touch) on the virtual keypad on an IM window matches most of these claims. Or a PDA. And those have had AIM with emoticons for…ever.

    Bogus, bogus, bogus. Shame on you USPTO!!!

    I’d shame Cingular, but based on the whole cellular industry’s apparent lack of any business ethics, this is the sort of crap I’ve come to expect.