Patent Law

The title of today’s blog is sure to get you yawning. Without patent protections, there would be no cell phones, primitive computers would be sold in kits, and microwave ovens would not be taking up counter space in your kitchen.

To develop an idea into a marketable product takes money. Who wants to invest money to develop a product that, if it is popular, some other company can copy for free?

In the past decade or two, the Patent Office has granted numerous “business process” patents, many of them to IBM, which is the world leading patent holder. So why is IBM willing to see reforms that would restrict some patent awards? The profusion of patents whose scope is too broad is stifling innovation.

What are “business process” patents? US Patent 6,766,303, granted to the investment firm Goldman Sachs in 2004 is an example: a method for hedging one or more liabilities associated with a deferred compensation plan. IBM owns patent 7,180,615, granted in 2007, for one click printing in a web browser. Well, at least breathing is not patented, you might joke. Wrong. Patent 7,396,333 was granted to Cardiac Pacemakers in 2008 for their system of predicting disordered breathing. Two months ago IBM was granted patent 7,519,645 for a method to add decimal numbers. It is very clever, involving both addition and subtraction.

How do these companies get patents for what seem like abstract ideas? To be patentable, ideas must be tied to particular machine or apparatus, or transform a particular article to a different state or thing. What is the machine that is tied to all these abstract ideas? The computer.

The last patent law was enacted in 1952, when the only computers were room sized machines with less computing power than today’s hand held PDA. In 2003, 2005, and 2007 Congress tried and failed to pass a patent reform bill. In March 2009, two Senate bills and one House bill were introduced. Will Congress succeed this time? If you can figure out a system for predicting that success or failure, you could probably get a patent on it.

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