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The battle against stupid software patents is on

Bill Snyder | Aug. 11, 2014
Patent trolls extort millions from developers and entrepreneurs, but help is on the way from the EFF and the Supreme Court

How dumb are all-too-many software patents? "Spectacularly dumb," says Vera Ranieri, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an advocacy group for freer flow of digital information. There was that patent on "scanning to email" and one on the confirmation screens you see when you've completed an online transaction, to name just two.

Those patents are so silly it's hard to take them seriously. But you should. Predatory trolls holding preposterous patents suck millions of dollars from the pockets of entrepreneurs who don't have the time or the money to fight in court. So Ranieri, a young lawyer with a degree in math and computer science, has launched a humorous blog entitled "The Stupid Patent of the Month," in an effort to make an arcane, and frankly boring, subject more accessible to the nonlawyering public.

"We wish we could catalog them all, but with tens of thousands of low-quality software patentsissuing every year, we don't have the time or resources to undertake that task," she says. Instead she'll poke fun at the really bad ones while she makes a serious point: the need to continue the slow process of fixing our broken patent system.

What passes as a patent innovation: 'Do it with a computer'
For August, the EFF has nominated U.S. Patent 8,762,173, titled "Method and Apparatus for Indirect Medical Consultation," which was granted in June. Here's how it works:

  1. Take a telephone call from patient.
  2. Record patient info in a patient file.
  3. Send patient information to a doctor, ask the doctor if she wants to talk to the patient.
  4. Call the patient back and transfer the call to the doctor.
  5. Record the call.
  6. Add the recorded call to the patient file and send to doctor.
  7. Do steps 1-6 with a computer.

The original patent actually had steps 1-6, and it was rejected. Then step 7 was added, and it was approved. "This is a patent on a doctor's computer-secretary ... Somehow, something that wasn't patentable became patentable just by saying 'do it with a computer,'" says Ranieri.

Now that's stupid.

The Supreme Court rules against one form of stupid patents
Ranieri doesn't think that all software patents are stupid; many are quite significant, of course. (My colleague Simon Phipps thinks they're evil.) But the troll-driven trend of patenting vague ideas with no implementation described needs to be squashed.

Indeed, that point seemed to be upheld in a recent decision by the United States Supreme Court known as Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank that invalidated a patent for the use of a computer to complete routine financial transactions. As Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia remarked: "If you just say 'use a computer,' you haven't invented anything."


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