Patent absurdities are plain unsporting

Patent absurdities are plain unsporting

Summary: In sport if you don't play by the rules, you don't play at all. The patent office should take note

TOPICS: Legal, Piracy

There are times when the patent system can pass for a useful tool for protecting innovation. And there are times when it resembles a cross between a Whitehall farce and an extortion racket

The latter description seems apt today, with the news that Microsoft has been granted a patent for converting programming objects into XML files and back again. In other words, using XML — the open standard that we all rely on to handle the exchange of data — to do exactly what XML was designed to do. Microsoft has filed some choice nonsense in the past, but it seems that it's getting bolder.

Try visiting the US patent office site where 59 patent applications from Microsoft were published last week alone. Microsoft staff dream up their fair share of bright ideas (even though their bosses are partial to buying up other people's), but calling some of these applications frivolous would imply far too much intellectual rigour.

Take this application for "Efficient string searches using numeric keypad". The details of this work of genius: "Contacts are stored in memory on a mobile device with a limited input device containing input points. Each input point corresponds to a subset of the alphabet. For each contact, a string comprising characters representing the input points that correspond to the letters of the alphabet contained in the name of the contact is generated and saved with the contact in the memory. When a user desires to retrieve a contact, the user presses the input point that corresponds to the subset of the alphabet containing the first letter in the name of that contact. A prefix search for the character representing that input point is performed on the saved generated strings. Any contacts containing a matching string are then presented to the user. "

That's what we, you and a billion others do every day when we look up contacts in our mobile phones — and what Microsoft is claiming to have recently invented. It may be that nobody involved in that patent has ever seen, owned or operated a mobile phone. It may be that Microsoft's patent lawyers are genuinely unaware of the concept of prior art. It may be that Microsoft is gaming the system, taking advantage of patent office docility to create a legal minefield disguised with only the very faintest veneer of innovation. Whichever is the case, the system has failed.

The irony is that back in March Microsoft itself called for the US patent system to be reformed. We think they're right. There have to be genuinely effective sanctions in place to make everyone play fair.

But what could possibly prevent multi-billion dollar companies abusing the patent system? How about the same kind of powers that the sporting world uses to keep competitors within the rules? Today's millionaire footballers are immune to financial penalties — so they get slapped with bans if they step out of line. The world of horseracing is haunted by the fear that races are fixed — so those guilty can be 'warned off', and told never to return to the betting ring.

The only way to make companies respect the patent system is to take the same approach. Those guilty of repeatedly filing frivolous patents don't deserve the protection of the patent system, and should be banned from taking part in it. It's time to red card the worst offenders, before the whole damn system takes an early bath.

Topics: Legal, Piracy

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  • The author of this article is an ignorant fool.
  • It's not just the players abusing the system but the referees and the union as well.

    Something needs to be done about patent offices, patent officers, patent laws, patent lobbiests and politicians who always seem to find new lame excuses to allow yet another patent or give it more powers.

    Because if it taste likes greed, smells like greed and looks like greed then it must be greed. And currently that's all what patents seem to be about: greed with plenty of me, me, me sauce.
  • It is long overdue that this come into play. Here's some examples for anyone not convinced that it is actually needed:
  • Microsoft is trying to reveal the stupidity of U.S. patent system, I suppose.
  • Your suggestion of yellow and red cards is misdirected and unworkable.

    The responsibility for ascertaining whether a patent should be granted lies with the patent office, not with individual inventors. The fact is that Patent Offices worldwide (well, the UKPO, EPO and USPTO at least) are just not doing their job properly; they fail to do proper prior art searches on examination and consequently grant patents for things that aren't original. The scandal isn't that Microsoft applied for a patent on C# to XML conversion when this wasn't a new idea; the scandal is that the application succeeded. Your proposal to penalise unsuccessful inventors for the failings of the various Patent Offices is wrongly directed. Furthermore, it doesn't take a legal genius to think of many different ways that rich companies could exploit the inevitable loopholes in your proposal (such as applying for patents via shell companies).

    You should instead be directing your energies towards ways of ensuring that there is a better standard of patent examination, resourced to employ better trained staff using better search engines and being given more time. The US Congress in particular should be encouraged to plough back the profit made by the USPTO (all of which comes from examination and renewal fees) into this type of investment, which would prevent inappropriate patents being granted.

    If you want to campaign for a productive change in the current regulations, possibly the most important legal reform that should be introduced (ideally via an amendment to the PCT) would be for all the various Patent Offices to be made liable for costs and damages if it becomes necessary to have an invalid patent that they had granted struck out by the courts; this single measure would go some considerable way toward ensuring that they all took their responsibilies in this area more seriously.
  • The idea of these "cards" is very good, but really if the patent system worked and was not deluged with patents then most of the problems would not be there. What I mean is that this sounds like a good idea, but who is going to police it? Another group of patent professionals and another gang of expensive lawers?
  • this writer DOES NOT understand patents or patent law