I'm writing a piece software. As part of my application I intend to implement a custom file browser (a simple popup window, which allows you to search folders, files etc).

My intention is to divide this file browser into columns, each of them displaying a folder tree view. The trick is that if a user clicks on a folder, another column is created showing the content of that folder (although it is still possible to expand that folder in the same column it was initially displayed in).

What I am afraid of is that this idea might be restricted by some patent (truth to be told this solution is a bit similar to what I came across on Mac OS)

I've found Apple's patent: https://www.google.com/patents/US20120185456 but it seems (please correct me if I'm wrong) it only describes how the items should be displayed in what would be a single column in my file viewer.

There is also a short part about the column view but as far as I am concerned it explicitly states that columns are used to display a specific information item's data and not a deeper level of file hierarchy:

FIG. 3 illustrates an exemplary non-hierarchical, column view of visual representations of user-oriented information items on a computer system display. In some implementations, a column view can be selected using view selector 106. In column view, visual representations in each group can be laid out in a first column. A second column can display a preview and other information about a selected information item. In the example shown, My File 1 is selected from group 112 a, causing a preview and basic information for My File 1 to be displayed in the adjacent column in view 103. Each group 112 in the first column can be vertically scrolled to display additional visual representations. In column view, each group can be condensed such that the group is limited to a fixed number of rows for displaying visual representations of items.

I have two questions:

  1. Am I right? Is my idea not prohibited by this patent?
  2. How can I check if there are any other patents that could prevent me from implementing my file viewer in the way described above?
  • First, the document you cite is an application for a patent, not a granted patent. As such, it does not prohibit anything. Second, when looking at a patent to see if it covers what you are doing, look at the claims. The passage you quoted is part of the explanation portion if the document. Only the claims lay out exactly what is protected.Trying to find out if a patent might exist that covers what you are planning to do is a large effort. It would entail a specialized search.
    – George White
    Commented Aug 26, 2013 at 17:37

2 Answers 2


George White nails all of the important points as usual.

  1. US20120185456 is a Patent Application not a granted patent. Until and unless it is issued it does not prohibit you from doing anything. In some sense anyone can file a patent application which says anything. The patent which is allowed may be much narrower than what is described in the specification, and no patent may be allowed at all.

  2. According to Public PAIR the application US20120186456 was issued a non-final rejection by the USPTO and has since gone abandoned.

  3. It's not trivial to look for patents which might read on the implementation of your idea. A specialized search from a patent agent or a patent lawyer would be your best bet. There are also searching professionals. However the search is accomplished, only an attorney can advise on how what is turned up in the search might affect you in court.

  4. You need to read the Patent Claims to know what exactly the inventor claims to have invented.

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The NeXt computer had a file browser that worked very much like this, back in the 19080's. Any such patents should have expired by now.

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