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Latest Examples of the Failure of the USPTO, With Emphasis on Software Patents

Monopolies in calculus

Abacus



Summary: A month-long roundup of news about software patents

THE NEWS is filled with silly software patents. These are constantly being announced by folks who believe that patenting mathematics is something commendable. "As described in the patent," one page says, "the new technology utilizes a computational model called an artificial neural network (ANN) to reach conclusions about the content of web pages and similar documents. An artificial neural network is an adaptable computing system based on similar principles as the human brain."



This is the type of thing people are patenting. It's essentially maths and it can impede teaching and research. Some other company keeps pushing this old press release about a book promoting software patents. Another one about "patent-pending software service" makes it evident that in at least one country in the world one need not be shy about claiming a monopoly on mathematics.

There is a good new article titled "How Software Patents Will Ruin the World" and it goes like this:

There are methods that software developers can use to fight back against software patents. One such method is to prove that you developed the invention first. Unfortunately, this sometimes becomes difficult to prove when the “invention” is actually an idea. There are also some non-profit organizations that will take a case to defend a software developer against patent infringement accusations.

Unfortunately, fighting patents will not stop them altogether, and there is a danger that some legal actions against patents may serve to legitimize them. A better approach is to convince lawmakers to halt the blind approval of software patents by patent agencies in various countries.

If legislation is not changed, software patents threaten common software, particularly free and open source software, that is used on computers, servers, phones, and other devices all over the world. The result will be a lack of quality innovation, competition, fair pricing, and independent developers. None of that is good for the progress of society. If our technology becomes constantly entangled in patent lawsuits that take years to be resolved, development and innovation will slow to crawl, leaving the world crippled by its own laws.


The situation is already quite bad. A double-clicking patent is now a source of trouble to many:

Hopewell Culture & Design reckons it owns the act of double-clicking, and is suing Apple, Nokia, Samsung and just about everyone else for breaching its patent.


Pogson saw this patent and compared it to this:

The act of double-clicking is like rhythm in music, “rhythm is simply the timing of the musical sounds and silences“. That’s stretching things a bit but it gets to the essence of the patent, conveying instructions from the user to the computer software by varying the interval between clicks.


NPR debates one of Amazon's more controversial patents by asking: Amazon Could Let You Return A Gift Before It's Sent; Awful Or Awesome Idea?"

Towards the end of last year people were also chatting about playoffs being patented. See "College Football Playoffs Patented?!?; Mark Cuban Warned Not To Infringe". There are direct links from Slashdot, too. [via]

For years, fans of college football have been clamoring for some sort of playoff system, rather than the messy rankings and bowl system that currently exists. It's a topic that people can get pretty passionate about. Even President Obama has weighed in on the subject arguing for a playoff system. I'm not a college football fan, so I don't really care one way or the other what happens, but there is a little tidbit in the latest discussion that I find interesting. Jarrett Streebin alerts us to the news that Mark Cuban is pushing hard to create a college football playoff system, which normally wouldn't be of that much interest to folks around here, except in Cuban's blog post about the topic, he posts an anonymous email from someone who claims to hold a patent on a football playoff system.


Another fine new example of bad patents is: "Location Targeted Coupons: Patented"

So it seems pretty ridiculous that, in 2005, some folks from Where Inc., applied for a patent on the concept, which has now been granted, and seems ridiculously broad (Patent number 7,848,765). The challenge was never about how to do this. That was obvious to all sorts of people. The issue was just waiting for the infrastructure to catch up. It's ridiculous that such an idea that was widely discussed way before this patent was applied for is now locked up via a patent.


Julie Samuels from the EFF writes about a scandalous patent which we mentioned here recently. She titles it "When Bad Patents Hurt Good People: Patent Threat Shuts Down Flight Planning Site":

In another example of using patents to stifle—rather than promote—innovation, a company called FlightPrep has come out fighting, threatening online flight planning sites with its newly obtained patent, and going so far as to sue at least one of those sites. That patent, originally filed in 2001, allegedly covers a system for generating flight plans online, hardly a novel concept. And FlightPrep is now using its patent to attempt to extract royalty payments from small companies that have been providing such a service for years—or put them out of business.


Pam Samuelson and her colleagues continue to produce good papers on the state of the patent system and they still get mentioned in the press for it.

The paper is part of a forthcoming symposium on the Bilski case, which also includes papers by Jason Schultz & Pam Samuelson (“‘Clues’ for Determining Whether Business and Service Innovations are Unpatentable Abstract Ideas”), Don Chisum (”Weeds and Seeds in the Supreme Court’s Business Method Patents Decision: New Directions for Regulating Patent Scope“), and Kevin Collins.


Patent lawyers, on the other hand, have their own biased story to tell (they have vested interests) and here is just one example of it:

First the CAFC refused to invalidate RCT’s patent on halftoning greyscale images. Next, they broadly applied Bilski to uphold a medical diagnostic patent. While the rest of us wait to see if the Supreme Court will revisit the Bilski issue in 2011 (and while I’m apparently accused of “cheering” the earlier diagnostic opinion), it’s business as usual at the PTO’s Board of Appeals. (Quick review: the Machine or Transformation (“MoT”) test–allowing a claim that is tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or transforms an article into a different state or thing–is a useful “clue” but not the sole test).


Red Hat's site has a very different story to tell:

Much of the problem with the current U.S. patent system involves haze. Whether it is ambiguity regarding what the patent covers or murkiness about whether the technology covered by the patent is actually new, patent plaintiffs regularly use this uncertainty to their advantage. This ambiguity–often planned–allows plaintiffs to leverage settlements against businesses that are forced to either pay their own lawyers or opportunistic plaintiffs, or take their chances in court where judges and juries are often unsympathetic to companies.

This haze is particularly pronounced with software patents. Unlike electrical patents, in which the electrons of an accused circuit either move in the way described by the patent or they don't, software patents can be manipulated to cover "inventions" far removed from the patent's description or any intent of the patent's inventor.


The matter of fact is, sites that target patent lawyers are increasingly willing to acknowledge the obvious: [via Glyn Moody]

The increased number of issuances raises some concern that the PTO has lowered its standard for patentability. It is true, that a higher percentage of applications are resulting in issued patents.


TechDirt has responded to this by warning: [via]

Prepare for the barrage of innovation delaying lawsuits... followed by a lot more patent applications. What's funny is that USPTO director David Kappos actually thinks that ramping up patent approvals will help with the backlog. It won't. Because all that will happen is that more people will try to get more ridiculous patents through, recognizing that the USPTO has massively lowered its standards, and they have a better chance of getting that magic monopoly with which they can sue other companies.


One of our readers, "buynsell", told us in IRC that a "[c]omment on Groklaw said U.S. patent examiners "have a quota to meet." Not sure exactly what it means, but it can't be good. Does USPTO require a minimum number of patent approvals every year?"

Mike Masnick from TechDirt writes:

How To Make The Patent System Even Worse: Make Patent Validity Incontestable



[...]

So it seems almost laughable, then, to hear a suggestion that things should move in the other direction. However, some of the patent systems loudest defenders are now proposing that patents should become incontestable after a period of five years, meaning that no one would be able to contest the validity of those patents, even if the evidence suggests the patent was granted in error. It's hard to fathom how this possibly makes sense. The only explanation given is that it would make patents more valuable -- as if they weren't valuable enough already. But, of course, that's laughable. It's based on either confusion about economics or the patent system itself. The point of the patent system is to "promote the progress." Focusing on making patents more valuable suggests these people believe the point of the patent system is to get more patents. But the two things are not the same. Making patents incontestable, especially in cases when a patent is not valid does not promote the progress. It does the opposite.


It is clear that the patent system is becoming ever more outrageous as those who profit from patents regardless of innovation give up on quality and forget the original goals of the patent office. When a company announces "Profitable Year, Highlighted by Software Patent", then it means patents are put before real production. TechDirt notes that "eBay Shutting Down Rubik's Cube Knockoff Sales Due To Patent Infringement Claim (Not From Rubik's Maker)":

Bram Cohen, who's known for doing quite a bit of 3-dimensional puzzle design, alerts us to the news of eBay shutting down a bunch of auctions over some Dayan Guhong and Lingyun puzzles. The Dayan Guhong and Lingyun puzzles are, basically, quite similar to the traditional Rubik's Cube, but designed to work a bit easier. You can see a video explaining the Guhong, which shows how it's faster than a traditional Rubik's cube.


For an example of pro-patents propaganda (including software patents which are named specifically), see this new article written by Gary Nath, who is not an engineer but a "managing partner and founder of The Nath Law Group." Here is an example of a pro-patents site speaking about Bilski

Bilski is no exception. Some commentators worried that the wrong decision in this case would kill the already ailing U.S. economy. At stake was what types of methods are eligible for patent protection. The patentability of “nonphysical” inventions including business methods, surgical methods, diagnostic methods and even the patentability of software itself was in question.


The impact of patents on mobile phones is one of the better demonstrations of the patent system going awry (the example of smartphones being harmed by patents is still made visible by this AP article that spreads to many more publications worldwide). How about mobile location patents for mobile phones? Well, that too is patented now: [via]

Just as geo mobile services are taking off, the U.S. Patent Office has awarded an extremely broad patent on “Location-based services” to Where. Patent No. 7,848,765 covers 31 claims ranging from sending an alert to offering a coupon when somebody crosses a geofence with a mobile device. Where CEO Walter Doyle calls it the “mother of all geofencing patents.”


What the world ends up with are embargoes like this one:

Monster Cable Keeps On Suing; Asks Court To Block Company From Attending CES



[...]

By now, you must know that Monster Cable has a rather terrible reputation for threatening and suing all sorts of other companies over intellectual property issues -- often, it seems, with very little merit (remember when they went after "Monster Golf"? good times...). The latest is that Monster Cable, along with Beats Electronics, are going after competitor Fanny Wang Headphones, claiming both patent and trade dress infringement, because Fanny Wang made headphones that have some similarities in style. The patent (D552,077), by the way, is not a utility patent but a design patent, which is very narrowly focused.

[...]

As you'd expect, Beats/Monster also demand all sorts of things (treble damages, destruction of all product, etc.). The complaint also points out that Fanny Wang is planning to be presenting its headphones at CES in early January, implicitly asking the court to stop Fanny Wang from appearing at the show. Remember, kids, the lesson of the day is "why compete, if you can have the government block your competition?"


It is time to decide whether this system is productive and whether it serves its purpose at all. If it does not, it's worth getting rid of it.

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