With the end of the year rapidly approaching, it seems that some companies just can't wait to get a head-start on patent trolling in 2009 with the news that one outfit thinks it has a chance to enforce rights on icons.

According to Ars Technica, little-known Michigan-based network firm Cygnus Systems Incorporated is looking to get a financial leg-up in the new year with a lawsuit against Microsoft, Apple, and Google – hey, at least no-one can accuse it of setting its sights low – regarding a recently-awarded patent on a “system and method for iconic software environment management.

That's right: we have a company which truly believes it is in with a chance of winning a lawsuit based on a relatively recent patent – granted in March this year after being applied for in June 2001 as a continuation of an original application in June 1998 – regarding icons: those little pictographic representations of programs that have been around just about as long as graphical user interfaces – if not before.

To be fair to the company, its patent is – slightly – more specific than mere static images: the abstract refers to “a method and system for storing, navigating, and accessing files within an operating system through the use of a graphical thumbnail representing the video display of the active document within the active application.

Translated from the legalese, the company is claiming rights to a system whereby a running application or open document is represented by a shrunken graphical display that updates in real time according to changes made to the file or within the program: a system such as is used by Microsoft's Windows Explorer, the Finder in Apple's MacOS X, and even by the open-source GNOME desktop project – but no-one ever got rich suing open source. Cygnus is also looking to target the “accompanying iconic file preview and access functionality” built into Apple's massively successful iPhone.

There are some oddities with the lawsuit, however: while it's easy to see why Apple and Microsoft have been targeted – whether or not you agree with the patent – it's a trifle harder to imagine the criteria for selecting Google – besides “has deep pockets,” anyway. The title of the patent clearly refers to the technology being used “within an operating system” and, Android excepting, the company has yet to release such a beast. Cygnus is adamant, however, that Google's Chrome browser is in violation of its intellectual property rights – despite being offered for free, both in the “speech” and “beer” senses.

While the companies targeted by the lawsuit have yet to respond, it's hard to imagine that anyone's legal counsel is losing too much sleep: between the scads of prior art available for this patent and the extremely deep pockets of the defendants, I can't see Cygnus getting its hands on “damages adequate to compensate plaintiff for the infringement that has occurred” – damages the company is hoping to have made retrospective in the unlikely event of a court finding favour with its arguments – any time soon.

Do you believe that Microsoft, Apple and Google will be able to show prior art invalidating Cygnus' patent, or does the company deserve some money for having – allegedly – come up with the idea first? Share your thoughts over in the forums.
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