It has been reported that COVID-19 has led to a surge in new patent applications being filed. Under normal patent prosecution timescales, these new applications will not publish until 18 months from their priority date, which will be their filing date if they are new inventions and this is their first filing (i.e. they will publish around Summer/Winter 2021). It is therefore difficult to know exactly what people are inventing in response to the virus.
I was therefore very interested when I saw a headline that Apple have been granted a patent (US 10 672 167 B2) for "socially distanced selfies". It typically would have to have a priority filing at least 18 months ago to be published, and typically a bit longer for it now to be in order for grant. In fact, the patent has a filing date of 11 July 2018, with a priority claim to an application filed on 29 September 2017.
Now, before I start a new conspiracy theory that Apple knew about COVID-19 in September 2017 it is important to look at what is written in the patent. When this patent was written, Apple were actually interested in how to take a group selfie more easily. Even the famous group selfie from the 2014 Oscars is cutting out someone, and has people obscured by those in front. The solution invented by Apple was for everyone to take their own individual selfie, which is then used to generate a composite group selfie.
While this is a neat idea on its own accord, and definitely something I could see being announced at an Apple launch event, it has taken on an increased relevance and importance in the light of COVID-19 social distancing - you can still take a group selfie while keeping a 2m separation! So, for reasons Apple couldn't possibly have imagined this patent filed in 2017 is suddenly hugely relevant and a nice piece of IP for them to hold.
Thinking about this made me realise how often we see this as patent attorneys in our daily work (although not typically to this scale!). Often, clients will have come up with an invention to solve a problem and we write and file a patent application for it. After the application has been filed, the client will begin to test the market and sometimes discover there is another use or target market for their invention. Hopefully, the way that we have written the original application is broad enough to cover this new use.
If not, it can be difficult to seek protection later as there may now be disclosures which could count as prior art. Therefore, this really highlights why it is important to get the wording of the first application right. It needs to be broad enough to cover alternatives, while not amounting to mere speculation that does not enable the invention to be carried out. When the initial drafting is being carried out, make sure that you've given your patent attorney all of the relevant information. You never know, a new market for your invention may open up that your application already covers.
According to the patent application ... an Apple device user ... could invite others to take part in a group selfie, and the software would arrange them together in a single image.