Patently Unfair | November 3, 2006

In a current British car campaign, the advert proudly exclaims that the manufacturer filed for 9,621 patents during the development of it’s latest gas guzzler, while NASA has only filed 6,509. The intention here is clear. The car manufacturer is trying to claim that the filing of patents is evidence that their engineers are more innovative that the worlds best rocket scientists. This works because the majority of people still assume that patents relate to complicated innovations that take yeas to perfect. Sadly this couldn’t be further from the case.

The purpose of patents is a good one–to protect the time and efforts companies put into research and development in order to create new innovations. However when you look at some recent patents you realise they are often vaguely worded descriptions or badly drawn sketches used to describe obvious, and sometimes pre-existing, concepts. Rather than protecting the commercial cost of innovation, patents are actually doing the exact opposite. Being used a way to extract levies off other companies for their hard work and effort.

A classic example is Amazon and their one-click patent. Many companies are now forced to pay Amazon a licence fee just to be able to use the concept of one-click payment. Then there is the GIF file format, which allowed Unisys to tax graphic design packages for many years. And any article on ridiculous patents wouldn’t be complete without mention of British Telecom’s ludicrous claim over the hyperlink.

In a glorious case of “the shoe being on the other foot”, a couple of weeks ago IBM announced they were going to sue Amazon for patent infringement. It seems that IBM own patents for “Presenting Applications in an Interactive Service”, “Storing Data in an Interactive Network”, “Presenting Advertising in an Interactive Service” and “Ordering Items Using an Electronic Catalogue”. In a beautiful demonstration of doublespeak, IBM’s senior VP for technology is quoted as saying “When someone takes our property… we have no option but to protect it through every means available to us”.

Rather than companies spending money coming up with new innovations, and then bringing those innovations to market, it seems that companies are filing more and more patents with the sole purpose of extracting licensing revenue from unsuspecting companies. This seems to be in exact opposition to the original point of patents.

If the worlds courts wanted to do something about this, they could. By limiting legal pay outs to a multiple of the effort spent coming up with the patent, you could protect the work and effort that goes into real innovation, while at the same time making spurious legal cases completely redundant. For instance if somebody infringed the patent on a new drug that cost the manufacturer $10 million to produce, you could claim compensation of $100 million. However if you spent half an hour one rainy Sunday morning deciding to patent the idea of “Presenting Advertising in an Interactive Service” then I think a days wages is all you should receive in return. After all, the value isn’t in the idea, it’s in the successful implementation.

Sadly this isn’t the case and as time goes on, the disturbing misuse of patents is only going to increase. I worry that one day, if you want to set up a website of any kind, you’ll be forced to pay a percentage of all your income to an industry body like the BMI, set up solely to collect payments for spurious patent infringement on behalf of a few large corporations.

Posted at November 3, 2006 12:48 AM


Tanny O'Haley said on November 3, 2006 3:07 AM

Back in 1994 I wrote a TAP (Telocator Alphanumeric Protocol) email to pager gateway at a company called Peloria. Peloria sold the gateway to Motorola who then sent us a cease and desist order. Apparently they had a patent for sending text to a pager that they thought we were violating. Because I had been writing text to pager utilities for a long time we were able to continue selling the pager gateway because I had sold pager gateways before Motorola took out the patent.

At the time, this was called “prior art” and in the U.S. this allowed me to sell the pager gateway because I had proof that I had created and sold it before Motorola took out the patent.

A patent attorney should know more, but I don’t see how a company can take out a patent on public domain concepts that have been used for years. I thought that when you took out a patent it had to be on a specific product.

Stuart Langridge said on November 3, 2006 7:59 AM

Already the case. Join the fight. Write to your MP (through

Rosie Sherry said on November 3, 2006 9:53 AM

There is an interesting patent debate going on at the moment within the elearning and Learning Management System (LMS) sector, where it is believed that Blackboard are attempting to patent the idea of online learning.

Obviously there is alot of disgruntle about this at the moment.

A search on “Blackboard” and “patent” will bring back plenty of results, or view this brief article:

james said on November 3, 2006 1:08 PM

Timely post Andy. It seems like the problem is only going to get worse. Check out this recent TechDirt post about Yahoo trying to patent ‘interestingness’.

Scott said on November 3, 2006 3:02 PM

It seems silly that IBM is suddenly leveraging these patents against Amazon, specifically. They seem to apply to fairly obvious techniques that almost everyone uses. Perhaps IBM is just trying to bully Amazon into dropping the One Click licensing, for the benefit of everyone else and because they have the ability. Unlikely, but stranger things have happened.

Oz Designs said on November 6, 2006 7:46 PM

Things just get weirder and weider. When there is advertising and market share dollars tied up in anything, you will see a totally diferent side to people and companies.

Michael Dick said on November 7, 2006 10:52 PM

An ex-colleague of mine use to say “patents are going to ruin the world!” I think I am starting to wonder the same…

jjj said on November 9, 2006 5:49 PM

My thoughts exactly when i saw the daft patent ad.
Apparently defunkt/bankrupt companies are bought up so they can be patent mined. These patents are then used to extort, sorry extract money from others.
Ironic as patents were designed to protect the little guys and now the big companies are using them to blugeon others out of business.

jjj said on November 9, 2006 5:51 PM

Oh I forgot to mention, I’m going to patent screwdrivers and then opening a door by pulling on a handle.

Michael Montgomery said on November 9, 2006 10:19 PM

If you think a few patents are invalid, perhaps you should instead object to the Patent Examiner’s competence? They are the people responsible for evaluating patent applications.

Jonathan Nicol said on November 10, 2006 9:46 PM

And don’t forget that Friendster was awarded a patent on a “System, method and apparatus for connecting users in an online computer system based on their relationships within social networks”. In other words they own a patent on social networking. Their business might be failing, but I’m sure they’ll be able to prop it up by suing successful websites: “We’ll do what we can to protect our intellectual property.”

Seuss said on November 13, 2006 7:25 AM

For the utmost in patent stupidity here’s a link to a patent on a “process for mixing (2 or more) competitively branded cereal products and adding a portion of liquid.

‘cause none of us demonstrated prior use in preparing for our childhood Saturday morning cartoon watching rituals.