Can you patent a page turn?


In a recent Bits column, Nick Bilton wrote about a Microsoft patent application that claims a curling page transition when flipping pages on a touch display. Very much the sort of thing you find on the iBooks app on the iPad, and on other applications. Very much the sort of thing that Ian Witten’s group has been writing about for years. I am not an expert on patents, but it seems to me that various aspects claimed by the Microsoft patent can be found in the following papers:

  • Chu, Y., Witten, I. H., Lobb, R., and Bainbridge, D. 2003. How to turn the page. In Proceedings of the 3rd ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (Houston, Texas, May 27 – 31, 2003). International Conference on Digital Libraries. IEEE Computer Society, Washington, DC, 186-188.
  • Liesaputra, V., Witten, I. H., and Bainbridge, D. 2007. Lightweight realistic books: the greenstone connection. In Proceedings of the 7th ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (Vancouver, BC, Canada, June 18 – 23, 2007). JCDL ’07. ACM, New York, NY, 502-502.

While the authors of the systems described in these papers did not typically use tablets to display the information, the software, in responding to the mouse, was just as capable of responding to touch input if run on a device with a touch screen. Since laptops with touch capability have been available for at least a decade, it doesn’t seem likely that even the combination of animation with touch is novel.

Nick’s article questions the utility of pages altogether, offering the observation that scrolling was preferred to page flipping in some of the prototypes he had built. He doesn’t report enough about the prototypes or about the tasks to which they were put, but it seems to me that pages do have a role to play in structuring how people navigate through documents. For example, it is much easier to remember that a particular item of interest is on page 237 (of a 432 page book) than it is to remember that it is at 54.9% of the way through.

While some of intra-document navigation could be handled through a good implementation of bookmarks and tables of contents (although it’s harder that it seems, judging by the systems that are out there), it’s more difficult to communicate to other people about positions in the book without page numbers.

Electronic displays offer the advantage of variable font sizes to accommodate a range of devices and acuity, but there are several ways to solve this problem: continuous scrolling, dynamic pagination, or fixed pagination and zooming. Different solutions are likely appropriate for different devices and reading situations. On a smaller device you might want to give up the fixed page in favor of scrolling; on a larger device such as an iPad, you might still prefer fixed pages. This is particularly true of documents with complex layout (multiple columns, figures, tables, etc.) that are not easy to reflow into an arbitrary container.

As far as the animation goes, it’s nice to look at at first, but I expect the novelty wears off. A simple graphical transition (e.g., something like a slide transition in PowerPoint) will probably suffice to provide visual feedback about page flips for most reading. On the other hand, page-turning animations can be thought of as dynamic equivalents of illustrations in a fancy edition.  I expect that over time we’ll develop stronger conventions for when different kinds of transitions are appropriate.


  1. You should patent different kinds of transitions, such as for chapters, parts within chapters, new stories in collections, etc. etc.

    Is there some minimum delta of improvement required for a patent? Or is it like statistical significance, which measures whether there is an effect, not the size of the effect?

    The patents I’ve seen are all like onions (our patent lawyers’ term from Bell Labs), with layers of every narrowing claims peeling away until you get to something you could defend. And the ones I’ve seen fit this analogy.

  2. Perhaps it’s also worth patenting page-turning for lefties. It would be a combination patent that involves novel use of duct tape.

  3. I remember Timothy Bell gave a demo of this page turning at ISMIR 2005 in London. (Bell works/worked with Ian Witten.)

    It’s very nice stuff.

  4. I find these page transitions distracting; the most useful feature is the ability to turn them off, to help me read more quickly!

  5. Jodi, this goes back to the genre idea: when you’re reading for work, and just need to get through things in an efficient manner, you don’t want those distractions. You do want some indication that you’re on a different page, otherwise your eye/brain might not notice the transition, but the indication can be pretty subtle.

    When you’re reading for pleasure, these kinds of transitions can work well with illustrated books, such as Alice’s Adventures that Maribeth wrote about.

    These conventions will take a while to sort out, I suppose.

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