Described as "pictorial representations of an expression or a person's mood", emoticons are widely used amongst habitual texters. Unfortunately for Samsung, Research In Motion and possibly others, Varia Holdings claims they own a patent which would prevent companies from providing a software-based button that displays "a list of emoticons for selection by the user".

Subsequently, Varia Holdings has launched a lawsuit against Samsung and RIM for infringing upon their supposed intellectual property. Here's the abstract for the patent in question, US 7,167,731.

An apparatus, such as a communication device, is provided with emoticon input logic associated with an input key to improve the ease-of-use of the apparatus for entering emoticons, e.g. into a text message, while the apparatus is operating e.g. in a text mode. Responsive to a selection of the associated input key, one or more emoticons are displayed for selection. A user may "scroll" through the one or more displayed emoticons to "select" an emoticon. In one embodiment, current focus is place on one of the displayed emoticons, and the emoticon with the current focus is automatically selected upon elapse of a predetermined amount of time after the current focus was placed.


Admittedly, the lawsuit is technically less about emoticons and more about the simple mechanism which displays them. I must concede though, this patent seems to be far from non-obvious and yes, the diagram to the right is actually an image from the patent filing. Whether or not it will stand up in court, of course, is another matter. 

Last year, Samsung actually sued Apple for using Emoji in both iOS and Mac OS 10.7. Emoji is a set of standardized emoticons which have appeared on many smartphones. Although SMS messages can't technically contain images, Emoji is actually a specific sequence of Unicode characters which represent colorful icons. On devices that support Emoji, users will see smiley faces, school buses and cupcakes instead of the actual jumbled strings of text.

While it may be difficult to understand how Varia Holding's patent was approved, we've certainly seen our share of questionable intellectual property before. USPTO has often been criticized for letting anyone patent just about anything, especially when it comes to the arcane realm of software engineering. As a result, there has been much discussion of patent reform or even doing away with software patents all together.