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Do patents suck?

By Dacta in News
Mon Oct 23, 2000 at 11:28:38 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

Do you think the Amazon One-Click shopping patent should never have been awarded? How about the Priceline patent on reverse-auctions?

Now thanks to a new patented business model, you can claim an award for finding prior art. Think this business process patent shouldn't have been awarded? You can be rewarded for proving that, too.

The company is called BountyQuest. It is a new start up where knowledge-loving people like you can win large cash rewards for finding information.

Basically, the idea is that businesses, indivuduals or organisations put up rewards (bounties) for prior art that invalidates specific patents. Investors in the company include Tim O'Reilly and Jeff Bezos.

One interesting aspect of the company is that they have patented ther business process (the "pay people for finding prior art" thing, I guess) and are offering a $14,158 reward for prior art that invalidates it.

There is currently $334,159 of rewards on offer, in the sections Bio-tech, Computers, Mechanical and Miscellaneous. A selection of the bounties on offer includes:

There is even $10,000 available for the patent covering Viagra

Shouldn't the patent office be doing these kind of searches? BountyQuest says:

Old techniques for finding prior art have included hand searching at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and other foreign patent offices, keyword searching through on-line databases, and traditional library researching. Although these techniques can work well, they are time consuming and incomplete. We at BountyQuest believe that the fundamental flaw with these existing techniques is that they require a small team of researchers, typically junior attorneys, to become experts on an entire field of research, for all its history; a daunting if not impossible task.

BountyQuest offers a new way to find prior art. Rather than ask a few novices to learn everything that has ever happened in a field, we ask all the experts in the field if they know of a reference that is relevant. Thus, we distribute the search over thousands of researchers who are already familiar with the jargon, the people, and the history of the field.

Perhaps this is true, but it doesn't shake my (and I suspect many others) belief that the patent system needs significant reform - not simply because patents are being awarded that are invalid because of prior art - but because they are being awarded in areas that simply should not be patentable. I find the idea of business process patents absurd for instance, and while I can see an argument for patenting some algorithms (eg, the RSA algorithm), I think software patents in general hold back the industry.


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Related Links
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o Also by Dacta

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Do patents suck? | 42 comments (39 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
prior art vs obviousness (2.75 / 8) (#1)
by enterfornone on Mon Oct 23, 2000 at 08:41:26 PM EST

The argument with the Amazon patent has generally boiled down to "it's an obvious application of cookies". But this doesn't make it prior art. Is there any evidence of one-click-shopping predating Amazon?

efn 26/m/syd
Will sponsor new accounts for porn.
But ... (4.00 / 5) (#7)
by aphrael on Mon Oct 23, 2000 at 09:02:34 PM EST

The argument with the Amazon patent has generally boiled down to "it's an obvious application of cookies". But this doesn't make it prior art. Is there any evidence of one-click-shopping predating Amazon?

But 'obviousness' is a legitimate reason for patent denial.

[ Parent ]
Doonesbury (4.80 / 5) (#11)
by Speare on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 12:00:39 AM EST

The following is one example of prior art that may help a fight to stamp out the Amazon One-Click Shopping(tm) patent.

It shows a networked computer, a catalogue of items, a credit account on file, and purchasing via a single (and dangerously easy) gesture.

However, breaking patents by finding simple prior art is not enough for most cases. Patents already granted are almost never cracked, certainly not by someone using an independent third party's prior art. In the famous Heinlein/Waterbed case, the patent was denied before it was granted by the patent office.

I'll say it again: patents are not about who is right, or who is first; patents are about who can sue.

To fix the Patent process, two things must happen:

  • Congress must stop using the PTO as a revenue source for other pet interests, and
  • The PTO needs to allow third parties to challenge patents before they're granted.

At the minimum, if the PTO would publish the abstract for each patent application at the time of filing, then third parties could submit "helpful" arguments against controversial patents. The PTO shouldn't publish the details, just the abstract; the PTO can then weigh obviousness against challenges without incurring the costs of doing all the searching themselves.

[ e d @ h a l l e y . c c ]
[ Parent ]
Cartoons aren't prior art (3.00 / 4) (#14)
by streetlawyer on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 03:48:48 AM EST

Your Doonesbury cartoon isn't prior art in any meaningful sense, because it doesn't give any information about how the process is *actually carried out*. Shall we put it this way; if someone invents a sonic screwdriver tomorrow, they aren't going to be paying any royalties to Doctor Who.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]
Nope... (2.50 / 2) (#20)
by lazerus on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 08:03:40 AM EST

They'd have to pay royalties to the BBC Labs, though.

[ Parent ]
The cartoon illustrates how obvious the idea was (none / 0) (#33)
by Zagadka on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 08:42:03 PM EST

The cartoon illustrates that the idea was a pretty obvious one, even to a non software developer. Now look at the HTTP Cookies spec. It says right there:
This simple mechanism provides a powerful new tool which enables a host of new types of applications to be written for web-based environments. Shopping applications can now store information about the currently selected items, for fee services can send back registration information and free the client from retyping a user-id on next connection, sites can store per-user preferences on the client, and have the client supply those preferences every time that site is connected to. [emphasis mine]
It doesn't take a great leap of insight to realize that a credit card number and shipping address are a type of "per-user preference". One-click shopping is practically spelled out in the spec for the technology that Amazon used to implement it.

[ Parent ]
prior art is not the only consideration (4.50 / 2) (#17)
by fantastic-cat on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 05:58:41 AM EST

The thing is that storing user data in a cookie was allready common, they've just dressed this up and called it one click shopping so now (in theory) no one else can store certain types of data about the user in a cookie i.e. credit card number.

all theyv'e done is draw the line in an illogical place theyre not patenting a technology they're patenting a use of an existing technology. Software patents are crap and innapropriate at the best of times this is just offensive to anyone who has even the vaguest idea about current internet technologies.


[ Parent ]

They don't store credit card numbers in cookies... (4.00 / 2) (#21)
by Dj on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 08:15:22 AM EST

They reassociate with user ids. And there's nothing to prevent you reassociating your user data via cookies, as long as you don't do it with a single click from the start to the end of the transaction.

[ Parent ]
More than that... (3.50 / 2) (#26)
by Parity on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 11:40:38 AM EST

The patent, as I understand it, is on the idea of, every time you one-click-to-buy a product, the product i.d. gets added to a buffer; if more than a certain amount of time passes without any more products being added to the buffer, all your selected items are shipped as a single order.

So, the patent is not just on cookies, but a combination of cookies and a 'purchase-spool'. However, because of the way they phrased it ('a single action, such as a mouse click') it can be trivial circumvented by using two actions. (Is 'drag and drop' two actions? ... )

Parity None

[ Parent ]
BountyQuest & Patents (3.44 / 9) (#4)
by 11223 on Mon Oct 23, 2000 at 08:45:34 PM EST

It seems that BountyQuest actually supports the idea of patents, by allowing corporations to cheaply find prior art for their patents, rather than spending time and money suing people over invalid patents. I'm suprised Tim O'Reilly would attach his name to this venture. I thought he was on the side of "no patents for software", but that doesn't seem to be the attitude BountyQuest takes.

Personally, I find the entire idea of patents disgusting, but that's my own opinion....

The dead hand of Asimov's mass psychology wins every time.

Step in the right direction (4.12 / 8) (#6)
by aphrael on Mon Oct 23, 2000 at 09:01:47 PM EST

Patents, in the abstract, aren't objectionable --- the idea that if someone works really hard to come up with something new, they should have exclusive rights to it for period of time [x] seems, on its face, perfectly reasonable. We can quibble over how long [x] should be, and we can quibble over the definition of 'something new', but ..

One of the biggest problems with patent law recently is that 'something new' is being used in a ridiculous fashion, largely because the patent inspectors don't know any better. Bounty Quest, by encouraging people to find prior art and therefore making it easier to invalidate patents, seems to be a step in the right direction --- make this bad patent go away!

[ Parent ]
patents are becoming misguided (4.66 / 3) (#23)
by mikpos on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 10:17:48 AM EST

Patents I don't think were ever really intended to seduce people into coming up with new ideas (and it seems fairly clear that they don't do that). They were created by the government to provide an incentive to share what had already been found. The theory is that without patents, inventors would never share their ideas with the world, having a monopoly forever (or, more likely, until someone reverse engineered them).

It's got to the point, though, that patents are a curse on the public at large. Quite frankly, I would prefer if companies never shared their ideas with the world. That means that if someone (or, more commonly, a few dozen people) come up with the same idea at around the same time, they can have an equal footing in the market, too. Better for the market and hence better for me, the consumer.

Like copyrights, patents I think should be re-evaluated in great detail. If they're better for business than they are for consumers, then it's obvious that they're failing their original purpose. Intellectual property was originally designed to encourage sharing of thought of ideas. If it ends up restricting it, then it's no friend to the public and the government has no place providing it.

[ Parent ]

Define "new" (none / 0) (#32)
by Zagadka on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 08:24:26 PM EST

Patents, in the abstract, aren't objectionable --- the idea that if someone works really hard to come up with something new, they should have exclusive rights to it for period of time [x] seems, on its face, perfectly reasonable.
The problem with patents is that they make independent discovery illegal. The fact that one can unknowingly infringe on a patent indicates a very serious problem with patents. With copyright this problem doesn't exist. I can't infringe on a copyright without knowingly copying something. But with patents, I can come up with an idea on my own, and still end up in hot water. I think a fix for this is fairly simple:
  • shorten the length of patents
  • don't publish the contents of the patent until the patent has expired
  • if anyone figures out how something that's patented works without reverse engineering the patented device, then the patent expires immediately (this includes if you publish the contents of your own patent)
That way, if someone independently develops the same thing, well your patent must've been obvious, so it expires. This is consistent with what patents were originally designed for: to make sure that inventions become "public knowledge", in exchange for giving the inventor a temporary monopoly. If others can figure out how to your device worked without having to reverse engineer it, you didn't deserve the patent in the first place because it was clearly obvious to someone practiced in the art.

Note also that most business method patents wouldn't last very long with such a system, nor would patents on published or obvious algorithms.

[ Parent ]

Problem with your approach (none / 0) (#35)
by RadiantMatrix on Wed Oct 25, 2000 at 01:44:12 AM EST

Patents were indeed created to publicize works while protecting the investment of the inventor. However, your proposal misses another important job of a patent system - making the details of a patented device, method, etc available immediately encourages others in the same field to build on that design, creating rapid progress.

For instance, if a patent for the steam engine had been granted for 30 years, but without publishing the design, it would have been much longer before the same principles could be applied to create modern engines (gasoline, alcohol, etc).

I agree that the patent system is in poor shape, but that is largely because it has failed to evolve along with the pace of invention.
I'm not going out with a "meh". I plan to live, dammit. [ZorbaTHut]

[ Parent ]

I don't know if any solution would be perfect... (none / 0) (#39)
by Zagadka on Thu Oct 26, 2000 at 01:54:03 AM EST

...your proposal misses another important job of a patent system - making the details of a patented device, method, etc available immediately encourages others in the same field to build on that design, creating rapid progress.
That's why one of the points I mentioned was reducing the length of patents. I think having the contents of patents be secret for their duration is a small price to pay if the duration is shorter, and the risk of accidental infringement is eliminated.

[ Parent ]
Practical concerns... (2.80 / 5) (#8)
by Parity on Mon Oct 23, 2000 at 09:03:56 PM EST

It's not realistic to advocate for the end of patents, or even software patents; it's just not going to happen anytime soon. On the other hand, one -can- start a service that makes it so easy for both companies and the patent office to research prior art that the number of really awful patents given out is drastically reduced.

Parity Odd

[ Parent ]
It takes more than prior art... (4.73 / 19) (#9)
by XScott on Mon Oct 23, 2000 at 09:25:30 PM EST

I was involved in a patent dispute that went to court. We lost, and yes I'm bitter.

We found a good deal of prior art (it was and is pretty obvious image processing stuff) and submitted it to the judge in one of the pre-trial hearings (for the preliminary injunction or something).

Of course we had to give the plaintiff a copy of all our filings. During the period between the preliminary injunction hearing and the actual trial, the plaintiffs took our stuff and submitted it to the patent office as new material to be considered. The patent office rubber stamped this submission like they do everything that meets their formatting guidelines, and while on the stand I had to explain to the jury how I could claim what I submitted was invalidating prior art when the patent office accepted the new information and did not invalidate the patent. Incredibly infuriating!

The patent office accepts anything that has the margins formatted correctly. Their assumption is that with so many patents crossing their desk, the important ones will be tried in court. The courts are told to presume that the patent is valid because the patent office approved it and the patent office is qualified to make these decisions. This leaves an unsuspecting defendant fighting an uphill battle to invalidate a patent that barely got looked at by the patent office. It's a truly broken system.

You try explaining to a jury (with no technical background because the other side cut all the jurors with a college education) that the patent office doesn't know what they're doing. They're the patent office for Pete's sake, and you're the bad guy up on the stand because you probably broke the law or something.

To rub salt in my wounds - Now that we've lost, the patent is considered stronger than it was before because it has been tried in court. The next defendant has to fight even harder because our limited legal budget couldn't stand up to a bully with deap pockets. This is why they go after the financially weekest "infringer" first. It adds to their arsenal when they go after the next one.

The subject of this article, BountyQuest, seems to be doing a good thing, but truthfully I think the patent office needs to be disolved before it will make a difference. They get paid per patent they accept. The easier they make it to get a patent through, the more likely they are to receive more submissions. Software patents are just a new market to tap.

-- Of course I think I'm right. If I thought I was wrong, I'd change my mind.
Why didn't you attempt to patent it, then? (3.20 / 5) (#10)
by Speare on Mon Oct 23, 2000 at 10:44:28 PM EST

If your company had all this prior art, why didn't they file it with the PTO as a patent application at the same time?

If you're going to give the opposing counsel any material, stamp a truthful [PATENT #number] or [PATENT PENDING] mark across the whole page, or just assume they're going to end-run you.

You might be bitter, but you were played. Patents aren't about who is right, or who is first, but about who has the right to sue. If you're going to sue about patents, you need a patent.

[ e d @ h a l l e y . c c ]
[ Parent ]
Roll over and die? (3.25 / 4) (#12)
by Nickus on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 01:32:06 AM EST

So you mean if you file a patent and I have prior art that proves your patent isn't valid I should just roll over and die. How can I patent a thing that you have already have a patent on and then sue you?

Due to budget cuts, light at end of tunnel will be out. --Unknown
[ Parent ]
Re: Roll over and die? (3.00 / 1) (#30)
by XScott on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 12:40:24 PM EST

How can I patent a thing that you [have] already have a patent on and then sue you?
Actually, you could probably pull this off. It really boils down to how good your lawyers are. Patent your new invention with whatever additional features it has (like an about box in the help menu) and claim that this is novel over the prior art. Cite the existing patent in your application. If you have deep pockets for good lawyers and they don't, then you'll probably win at a jury trial. Worse yet, if it's a really small company you could scare them out of the market with just the prospect of going to trial.

-- Of course I think I'm right. If I thought I was wrong, I'd change my mind.
[ Parent ]
Re: Why didn't you attempt to patent it, then? (3.50 / 2) (#29)
by XScott on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 12:34:10 PM EST

First and foremost, I should say that I thought the "invention" (I'd rather call it an algorithm) was obvious and not worth a patent. I had been out of college for about 2-4 weeks before I got our system working. I think I'm clever, but if a new college grad (bachelors) can come up with the code to do what we were doing in a few weeks it's probably "obvious to one skilled in the art".

Second, I never said it was our prior art. It was prior art that I found at the public library and doing a web search - published articles and references from books.

(Actually, our company did have a tiny piece of prior art from the CEO at his previous job. We submitted that too, but IMO it was not nearly as significant as the stuff that we found in the library.)

-- Of course I think I'm right. If I thought I was wrong, I'd change my mind.
[ Parent ]
A patent way of playing patent reformer (4.10 / 10) (#13)
by mami on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 01:35:55 AM EST

One has to admit that Bountyquest is a very smart idea, because it is so extremely effective to protect Mr. Bezos from criticism about the usage of his own patent or to doubt Mr.Bezos' sincereness to play a major role in reforming the software patent system. It distracts from the fact that two/three smart business men have found a way to make a cool deal over the bad practice to obtain software patents for trivial business methods.

You can't find a reasonable, logic argument against what and how Bountyquest tries to accomplish to improve the problem of finding prior art. In itself a honorable goal, respectable the more, as Mr. O'Reilly sacrifices some of his own money to make his business partner a target of scrutiny, which makes the good intention even more convincing to the public.

What a smart move, but other than a smile about that much chuzpah and cleverness I don't have.

A patent like the one-click patent of Amazon doesn't turn a patent from being bad into being a good one, just because no prior art can be found. If no prior art in the required format can be found, it will validate the legality of the patent, but will not make the patent less bad.

The patent is "unreasonable" because the business method implemented through the software is a "trivial" one and in no way an "invention". No lack of prior art will ever have an impact on this judgement.

The fact that Bountyquest even patents their "software business application of finding prior art via an online reward system for submitting
possible prior art to their database" (if I understand it correctly ?) is sign enough that both are not at all sincere about questioning the role and usage of software business methods patents in themselves.

The whole thing is a terrific publicity stunt. It's a two-sided sword, serving the beneficial goal of facilitating a thorough search for prior art for real patents, and distracting the public's awareness from the fact that ridiculous software patents are issued for business processes any programmer skilled in his craft could have implemented and "invented".

businessmen and lawyers and juries oh my (4.25 / 4) (#15)
by Chakotay on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 05:43:46 AM EST

After reading this article, and after reading some of the posts, particularly XScott's and mami's, I'm awfully glad US patents don't apply in Europe. As XScott points out, the US patent system is broken, and desperately needs to be fixed. But it's not going to be fixed. The big corporations don't really mind the system the way it is, because they have pockets that are deep enough to actually take advantage of this obviously broken system. And everybody knows a politician is nothing without corporate backing to fund campaigns to endear the people. It's almost as if the American people as a whole don't think. They're a flock of sheep, guided by a few Washington shepherds and their corporate sheepdogs. Or rather, corporate shepherds and their Washington sheepdogs? Arf, arf.

Linux like wigwam. No windows, no gates, Apache inside.

not for long... (3.80 / 5) (#16)
by fantastic-cat on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 05:52:27 AM EST

I'm affraid that the EPO (european patent office) is trying to make this type of patent applicable in europe it would be a good thing if people could make your mark on this petition : http://petition.eurolinux.org/reference/index_html?LANG=en

Seems to me patents are an inappropriate way of protecting software developers (copyright laws would seem more applicable though there are flaws here too) and patenting business models and methods seems to go totally against the free market and competition that patent office claims to encourage.


[ Parent ]

Patents world wide (3.60 / 5) (#18)
by B'Trey on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 06:40:25 AM EST

While I fully agree that the US patent system is horribly broken, it's scarcely the only one. Witness the litigations going on concerning Rambus memory technology. My understanding is that the Japaneese patent system is orders of magnitude worse than the US. There, you can patent something like "Use of a red light bulb to indicate a low battery condition on a camera" and your competition can patent "Use of a yellow light bulb to indicate a low battery condition on a camera."

[ Parent ]
patents in Europe - here is a "nice" fac (4.00 / 7) (#19)
by pointwood on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 07:41:34 AM EST

If patents in Europe become reality (which they might do, but we are fighting against it, see the EuroLinux Alliance for further information), it is surely going to be horrible.

AFAIK, when they search for prior art (or rather will be, if this becomes reality), they will only be searching in their own database, they aren't looking at any source code or doing any serious searching on the internet, etc, at all.

I can't believe they can be so stupid - the only thing that can explain such a stupid thing is that those people will earn an awfull lot of money on it :-(


Pointwood JabberID: pointwood@jabber.shd.dk

Jeff Bezos? (3.00 / 7) (#22)
by Refrag on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 09:23:33 AM EST

I know how most of the Slashdot community always says that Amazon is evil because of their patents, but I disagree with them (normally in silence, because they don't listen). However, I never picked up on the fact that Jeff Bezos is a supporter of BountyQuest. Had I known this, I would have said something about it on Slashdot. I think that Amazon has patented things because if they didn't, someone else would (particularly Barnes & Noble). And that Jeff really doesn't want to have to patent stupid things like One-Click Shopping, but is forced to because of the environment. I wish that the Slashdot community would cut Jeff & Amazon some slack. I'm definately backing Amazon, they've been around for a long time as far as Web retailers go. They have great service and a well designed site.


Kuro5hin: ...and culture, from the trenches

A Brief History (5.00 / 2) (#27)
by interiot on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 12:15:37 PM EST

This post presents nothing new, but the parent post was moderated up, so I feel it necessary to clarify.

Earlier this year, Tim O'Reilly and Jeff Bezos talked about trivial patents a lot. Tim was trying to figure out Amazon's reasons for the patent, and to try to encourage Amazon change its ways. Tim summarized the discussions in an open letter, which was linked to on SlashDot (here)

    It has nothing to do with the implementation, which he admits is fairly trivial to duplicate, but with the reframing of the problem. At the time he came up with 1-click shopping, everyone was locked in to the shopping cart metaphor, because that's what you do in the real world. You pick up an item and take it to the counter to buy it. On the Web, he realized, something very different was possible: all you had to do was point to an article, and it was yours.

    What's more, Jeff went on, small inventions can often seem extremely obvious in retrospect. The patent literature is full of this kind of thing. The significance of an invention isn't how hard it is to copy, but how it reframes the problem in a new way.

    Yes, Jeff, you're right that you aren't the biggest offender, and that it seems unfair to single you out when there are so many others who are doing so much more damage. You are being made an example of precisely because you are a good guy and Amazon a great company, which does care about both customers and innovation, as you said to me in your original email response. That's why it's so important that you set a good example.

Soon after, Jeff wrote a response (here, also linked from Slashdot) that, among other things, called for patent reform.

    Tim and I have had three long conversations about this issue, and they've been incredibly helpful ... My thinking on the topic of business method and software patents has been strongly influenced by Tim's observations

    As a company with some high-profile software patents, we're in a credible position to call for meaningful (perhaps even radical) patent reform. ... To this end, I've already contacted the offices of several Members of Congress from the committees with primary responsibility for patents to ask if they would be willing to meet with me on this issue.

    On a related issue, to further try to help with the prior art problem, I've also agreed to help fund a prior art database. This was Tim's idea, and I'm grateful for it.

I think it's pretty clear that Jeff changed his mind after the fact. He still defends the One-Click patent as being a not-completely-insignificant-innovation, but I doubt that he'd apply for a similar patent again.

So Jeff Bezos has already been pretty much cleared on Slashdot, but maybe some of them didn't notice.

Anyway, these are the events that have lead to Jeff and Tim partnering in this company.

[ Parent ]

More recent history (none / 0) (#37)
by OddWeapon on Wed Oct 25, 2000 at 01:29:36 PM EST

At a recent informal talk, I heard Bezos say BountyQuest reflects his lack of success in changing the existing patent laws. He mentioned that technical patent lifetimes should be made much shorter (2-4 years). He then mentioned changing patent law would take an incredibly long time, and that BountyQuest was a more immediate "industry solution".

[ Parent ]
Use of patents are the problem not the granting of (4.66 / 3) (#28)
by Dakkon on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 12:26:17 PM EST

I think that Amazon has patented things because if they didn't, someone else would (particularly Barnes & Noble). And that Jeff really doesn't want to have to patent stupid things like One-Click Shopping, but is forced to because of the environment.

I think you are missing part of the problem here. A lot of people aren't so much upset that the patent got through, as they are that Jeff is enforcing it. I agree with you completely that if Amazon hadn't patented "One-Click" shopping, that someone else likely would have patented something similar. The trouble is, that Jeff decided to enforce his patent. Were I in his position I would be content to know that no-one could use such an idea against me in a patent war. He decided that he would use it as a weapon against B&N though, and I personally find that to be unacceptable behavior.

My .02$

[ Parent ]
that's not the point (none / 0) (#36)
by mami on Wed Oct 25, 2000 at 02:39:30 AM EST

I resent the idea that being critical of Amazon's one-click patent and the fact that Amazon enforced it against Barnes & Nobles, is seen as being critical against the company itself or against Mr. Besoz' business success. Nothing of that sort is true - at least not for me.

Amazon.com is an excellent site and a great online bookselling company. And Mr. Bezos certainly a hell of an entrepreneur. Nobody denies that. And basically nobody really cared about the patent (or even knew that much about it) , because noone would have thought he had the intentions to enforce it. But he did .

Simply said, what I find so unacceptable about it, is the fact that _theoretically_ Mr. Bezos could sue any company who uses a shopping cart configured in a way that the order procedure results is a one-click process. Even if Mr. Besoz were the nicest CEO around and ensures us all, he _would NEVER do that_, it does not change a thing about the fact that this patent doesn't patent something patentable. :-) But of course noone would get into an argument with Mr. Besoz about it. It's so much more easy to simply redesign the checkout pages on web sites to a two click thingy than to get into a costly argument. Case closed.

But, why then having the patent in the first place ? Amazon doesn't make more money or sells more books, because they have this "all revolutionary, dandy, one-clicke-di-die order button, or do you seriously believe, you buy your books because you are seduced for life by THAT feature ? :-) I doubt that Barnes & Nobles sells less books, because they are not allowed anymore to do one click order processes, my, my they have to do the "pas de deux".....big deal.

Now the patent itself. Where is the invention ? Let's say you would like to defend the patent, saying Amazon had to recover the millions of R&D costs it invested to develop the code. (BTW, I am not against patents in industries where you really have to invest millions for R&D, laboratories, testing etc technical chemistry, pharmacology, bioengineering etc. and where patents were historically the way to recover these costs for the inventor's company). Frankly, I don't believe in that argument. If Mr. Besoz had to invest that much money then it was not for the piece of code which represented the one-click feature, but for other services he is offering through his site. So, he uses potential income in licensing fees through patents on trivial business methods like one-click shopping and affiliate programs to recover costs he had to invest in other areas.

Another thing is, that I don't believe Amazon would not apply again for similar kind of patents. They have already, or how do you judge their affiliate patent ?

Now, how can we prove that other sites had a similar feature to the one-click process implemented and described before Sept. 1997 ? As with so many other things, most probably the porn sites had similar features implemented the first, may be they changed it back, who knows ? Do you expect them to come forward ? What for ?

Let's say 1996 open source code had been tweaked to implement that feature at a site from a consultant who is developer of said code. The site goes down and changes a couple of months later. Do you want the developer, who writes the open source code and whose code is used in thousands on web sites all over the net, come forward and say: hey, foul, your programers, Mr. Bezos, were not the only ones and not the first ones to tweak the code to do the one-click thingy. Why would he? In order to endanger all his customers and his own consultant business? Let's say the site didn't go down, but makes still a nice little profit and lives somewhere on the web. Why would they come forward ? To get in trouble with Mr. Besoz ? Nope.

So, does the $10,000.00 reward changes the whole picture ? Probably not. Makes the patent more sense now than it did before, just because Mr. Besoz decided that "the patent process" needed to be changed to adapt to the "new millenium" (gosh I sound almost like Clinton/Gore:-)). I don't think so.

What motivates me to waste my time whining about this subject? I think, because I don't like monopolies to take over in some simple trades like bookselling. It's not necessary. Selling books is something very ordinary, it's not like building the B2-Bomber, no multinational monopolies are needed to distribute books. Opening a bookstore and selling books should be something anyone, who loves it, should be able to make a modest living with. The small independent bookstores have died away in the U.S, why shouldn't I mourn about it, they had character most of the time, and charm and I miss that...:-)

[ Parent ]
It's partly intentional (4.50 / 4) (#24)
by scott@b on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 11:25:02 AM EST

Back some years ago there was a decision to "protect the US software industry" which resulted in the loosening of criteria for software related patents. Patents were granted for stuff that wouldn't have been patentable a few years earlier. Hmmm ... can't remember if the fight between S.E.A. ( ARC) and Phil Katz (later of PKZIP) over PKARC was before or after the patent change; whichever it was it was an example of something that shouldn't have happened - the source code was out and could be seen to be made from chunks of code that had been floating around for awhile, complete with the originators' comments and differing formatting styles.

Anyway, once the decision had been made stuff that should have been rejected at the start was being granted patents, before those mean ol' foreign companies could beat up the poor patriotic US industry. Also during the Reagan adminstration the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals came into being, with a distinct Chicago School bent to it. This body has assumed that a patent, if granted, is valid and it is up to the challanger to strongly prove otehrwise. That, combined with the unfamiliarity of the concepts and too large workload, have resulted in the current mess. (IMHO)

The US Patent Offfice does not rubber stamp every application that meets their formatting guidlines. I know several people who applied for (non-software) patents in the last few years and have not gotten a patent granted. One had a quite successful patent attorney processing the fomr and filing for them, and handling the appeal. They didn't get their patent, it being rejected for prior art grounds although the prior art seemed to be a bit distant to me. But these were patents of tangable things, the sort of stuff the Patent Office has been dealing with for several hundred years. Toos something new at them and all too oft they fail to see the obviousness of something, or are unaware of previous examples and use.

Software patent fights are likely to encounter the lack of background problem. Judges aren't yet likely to be familar with the concepts of software, and view minor differences as being of major importance. Often it gets into a pissing battle between the experts on the opposing sides, and which entertains the judge the best.

This has been going on in other fields for a _long_ time. In the chemical industry patents were granted for processes that are minor changes to previously patented one, or even to stuff published decades before, where near any chem major would have said "whoa - that's just using another catalyst of class X" but the prior art didn't explicitly mention that particular material; perhaps the previous patent failed to use general and sweeping enough terms. The early electronics industry also had such nonsense, minor changes in tube or circuit design being granted patents.

And a lot of patents are preemptive strikes - the process or idea doesn't work all that well, but by patenting it you prevent someone else from doing so and possibly claiming that what you end up using infringes on their patent.

I believe that it would be helpful to get back to Jefferson's original concept of the Patent Office, with the mid-1800s addition of "non-obvious". Note that back in the 1930s and `40s the Supreme Court suggested that to be patentable an invention must "reveal the flash of creative genius not merely the skill of the calling". This is rather different than the current state of affairs.

Patents DON'T suck -- their adminstration DOES (3.83 / 6) (#25)
by redelm on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 11:38:35 AM EST

Lets face it -- IP is valuable and deserves some protection. A drug company can spend mega$ developing some drug, or a chemicals company spend mega$ developing some product or process. They deserve a return on their money, and we'd better give it to them if we want such development to continue.

I'd even extend this to novel software algorithms like RSA [maybe] and spreadsheets {VisiCalc?}. But some of these software patents are plainly absurd. Obvious beyond words, or even if not, likely to be developed even without patent protection [IP monopoly].

The US PTO clearly has no backbone, or willingness to argue with filers. They just want their case throughput which means approvals since they are quicker than disputed rejections. The judiciary seems to regard the PTO as some sort of experts instead of the rubber-stamp that they are.

One of these has got to change. Either the PTO becomes less of a rubber stamp, or the judges take the PTO's rubber-stamp for what it is -- worthless. The former solution is more elegant, but the latter solution is more likely and more robust.

Furthermore, the justification for patents has changed over time. Once, patents had to be granted for long periods because communications were slow, and building machinery and developing a market took a long time. There were also fewer people, so the profits were smaller. Also the liklihood of independant invention was lower.

I'd tend to give process patents still 17 years, but algorithmic patents should be shortened to 5 maximum.

Another problem in the US... (4.00 / 2) (#31)
by SIGFPE on Tue Oct 24, 2000 at 02:43:14 PM EST

...is that you can file for a patent within a year of revealing to the world what the invention is. This seems bizarre to me and I don't think anywhere else in the world allows this. It means that you can read a paper in a journal that describes a cool algorithm only to find a year or two later that you've infringed on someone's patent.
[ Parent ]
Drug Patents (4.00 / 2) (#34)
by RadiantMatrix on Wed Oct 25, 2000 at 01:36:11 AM EST

A drug company can spend mega$ developing some drug, or a chemicals company spend mega$ developing some product or process. They deserve a return on their money, and we'd better give it to them if we want such development to continue.
Actually, in the US, this is only the surface appearance. In reality, the government researches diseases with citizen tax dollars. When a treatment is found, that information is licensed to drug companies at very low prices. Whatever drug company develops the drug that implements the findings first recieves a 17-year patent on it, and pays no royaltiies on it. Often, too, the patents are repeatedly extended. Since there's no cost-limit in place for prescription drugs, the Drug Co's rake it in.

I agree that IP should be protected, but I think we should be clear on whom we protect.
I'm not going out with a "meh". I plan to live, dammit. [ZorbaTHut]

[ Parent ]

Software Patents DO suck! (none / 0) (#41)
by pointwood on Thu Oct 26, 2000 at 11:17:58 AM EST

I can, partly agree with you with patents on drugs, but patents on software is a totally different thing, and five years is a long time in the software industry.

Please read this for further information: No to software patents

Pointwood JabberID: pointwood@jabber.shd.dk

[ Parent ]
Prior Art (maybe) (none / 0) (#38)
by ainsje on Wed Oct 25, 2000 at 07:51:18 PM EST

Link Here is some possible prior art from Dr. Dobbs Journal. And yes, I've already posted it.
Good laws derive from evil habits. -Macrobius
'Fraid not. (none / 0) (#40)
by Dacta on Thu Oct 26, 2000 at 02:30:48 AM EST

Assuming you are talking about the Amazon One-Click shopping patent, it isn't prior art because it is YASCS (yet another shopping cart system). There's plenty of prior art with them - it's the one-click buy thing that Amazon patented.

[ Parent ]
A pro patent commentary (5.00 / 2) (#42)
by Maniac on Fri Oct 27, 2000 at 01:24:48 PM EST

To answer the first two questions (should these patents have been awarded), my default answer is YES. Here are my reasons why...
  • First, the US Patent Office is NOT a "rubber stamp". Personally, I've applied for two patents, one rejected after modifications and the other approved after a couple rounds of changes. I have some friends at work with similar results - getting a patent approved is NOT easy.
  • Second, I assume the Patent Office did the same kind of search with these patents as with mine. If so, I am quite confident they did NOT find any relevant prior art to disqualify them.
  • Third, I believe these ARE novel ideas. As such, with the current laws, they are subject to protection. For example, I see the concept of Bounty Quest quite facinating and hope they do well with it.
Some additional background. I work for a large company where there are incentives, direct to the staff people, for innovation. Submitting ideas for a patent and getting them approved is just one part of that. My peers and I are personally richer because of tha kind of programt. I do have a personal interest in continuing to get those awards. Note these awards are not limited to a patentable idea. The company can choose to keep it a trade secret or publicize it broadly based on business needs. The stuff I'm working on now will likely be released under the GPL instead of being a trade secret or patentable idea.

This is not to say that the patent system does not require reform. Constructive changes should be implemented. For example, the period of protection may be "too long", if so let's fix it.

However, I want to point out that several people [and their companies] DO benefit from the current system. I also believe that people and companies that implement an idea first should get the benefit of that work. But, let's not throw out the patent system just because people "don't like it" or because it puts their group at a disadvanatage.

Do patents suck? | 42 comments (39 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
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