Pie Menu FUD and Misconceptions
Don Hopkins
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I respect Don’s work and his its importance in the development of radial menus. It is cited 17 times in Gord Kurtenbach’s thesis on Marking Menus, in every paper Gord and I published on the topic (see: http://www.billbuxton.com/papers.html#anchor341815) , and the Kurtenbach patent mentioned in this article. This is as it should be. His work was an important contribution.

As for patenting “marking menus”, you might want to consider taking the following into consideration in your reading Don’s characterization of things.

Read Gord’s thesis and the papers above which disclose everything we learned about marking menus in our research at the University of Toronto, how they performed, and how — to the best of our knowledge — to use them most effectively. To the extent to which there is such a think as a marking menu, then this work is a pretty comprehensive summary — including credit to those upon whose shoulders we were standing, including (but not only) Don’s.

So here is the point, absolutely NONE of that was patented, Just the opposite. The rule in my research group was simple: we were part of the community of scholars, and as such, everything that came out of our lab was published in the open literature precisely so that it could NOT be patented.

The notion that Gord, I, or anyone else patented and of this (or any other)work from time at the university is simply false. And, by the way, among other things, our work on capacitive multi-touch, published in 1985.

This practice of placing ALL of our research group’s work in the public domain was common knowledge, and something which we felt strongly about and therefore were not hesitant to speak about it. Why on God’s earth would we give something and then try and hide it?

After leaving the university, Gord and I both worked at Alias Research (later Alias|Wavefront). There, Gord filed a patent, on a technique which he had not thought of, implemented or written about in his thesis work. That is the patent that Don speaks about in his essay.

To give you a feeling for the reliability of the story above, note:

That patent issued in Nov 1997.

At that time it became public.

Therefore its content would appear to have been accessible to anyone at the time of the Game Developer’s Conference “in the late 90’s” framing Don’s narrative.

Given all the university work which we placed in the public domain, other than that extension clearly outlined in the publicly disclosed patent, there was nothing constraining anyone from implementing marking menus in a commercial product, other than their own initiative and ability.

Many, such as SoftImage and as Don mentions, Electronic Arts, did just that without a problem — for good reason. They didn’t infringe on the small patented part.

In closing — given that we have to function in a world with patents, for better or worse — the best advice that I can suggest to avoid the kind of stress and dismay that Don recounts is to speak to sales people at trade shows about sales. Speak to product engineers about software and hardware. And take your patent questions to your lawyer, not the competition’s marketing people.

My high respect for Don’s technical contributions remains. However, after 20 years of trying, it is clear that there is no constructive conversation to be had to resolve differences. So be it. And that’s too bad. And unnecessary.