Searching the EU and UK Patent Archives

The archives at Espacenet contains thousands of patents from dozens of countries including the UK, the European Patent Office and WIPO patents.

The idea of a patent is to give a monopoly for a short time to inventors in return for full disclosure of the techniques of their inventions. The practice of patents is increasingly being spread to new areas (such as software, business methods or life) which impose a huge restriction on the freedoms of individuals and society for very little gain.

Many of these are software patents, which are currently illegal under the European Patent Convention (which covers more than the EU) and which the EU is trying to make legal under the Directive on the Patentability of Computer Related Inventions. Software patents severely restrict the way in which programmers can work without fear that their work unknowingly infringes on a patent.

Business methods by Amazon

Amazon are a very innovative company who have unfortunately taken to patenting their business methods. One of the most famous ones is the 1-click patent - now available in Europe!

A method and system for placing an order to purchase an item via the Internet. The order is placed by a purchaser at a client system and received by a server system. The server system receives purchaser information including identification of the purchaser, payment information, and shipment information from the client system. The server system then assigns a client identifier to the client system and associates the assigned client identifier with the received purchaser information. The server system sends to the client system the assigned client identifier and an HTML document identifying the item and including an order button. The client system receives and stores the assigned client identifier and receives and displays the HTML document. In response to the selection of the order button, the client system sends to the server system a request to purchase the identified item. The server system receives the request and combines the purchaser information associated with the client identifier of the client system to generate an order to purchase the item in accordance with the billing and shipment information whereby the purchaser effects the ordering of the product by selection of the order button.

No, you don't need to read all that. It sums up to: display information about a product, add to shopping basket, get customer details, confirm order, remember customer for next time. Genius.

Here's another:

A network-based payment service provides various features for facilitating online, user-to-user payments over a computer network. A patent from...Amazon! Did someone say that business methods weren't patentable?

Amazon have plenty more business method patents...

One important test for a valid patent is that the invention in non-obvious:

Displaying prices in a different currency, how do they think these up?

Another is that nobody has thought of it before. Here's a patent for web browser cookies, something invented and implemented by Netscape:

Apple

There is such a thing as a registered design, it's for the outward appearance of an object which has no relation to it's function. Used for Coke bottle or iMacs as obvious examples. Apple have this patent from December 2002:

The patent covers putting a light inside a computer to glow when the computer is turned off. Is that an invention?

And some things just shouldn't be patents at all...

Computer interface have long since been considered to be copyable. Microsoft nicked Apple's. Apple nicked Xerox's. KDE and GNOME nick from everyone. It's how these things advance. The nifty effect you get when minimising a window in Mac OS X is patented.

[I received an interesting side note on this history of GUI desktops from Alistair McMillan]

The user interface for iMovie and iTunes is also patented.

There's little origional about these interfaces, and the windows minimisation is only an extention of what Microsoft has done since Windows 95. How does interface patents benifit society?

Removable Keyboard patent from Apple

The invention generally pertains to a computing device. - well that's origional.

More particularly, the invention pertains to an improved keyboard arrangement for use in the computing device - The applicant is stalling for something.

One aspect of the invention pertains to a movable keyboard that can be opened or removed to gain easy access to internal components of the computing device. The reason for the stalling is that this patent is exactly like every other computer laptop I've seen.

IRC chat from a mobile phone via a proxy

Telecomm Systems Inc consider using chat from a mobile phone to be origional and non-obvious.

Netscape

One of the most innovative companies of the early 90's reduced to patenting javascript programmes:

Software development from Togethersoft

METHOD AND SYSTEM FOR DEVELOPING SOFTWARE

I'm involved with Umbrello a program used by other program developers to draw diagrams of their code. Umbrello can take these program diagrams and export them to code. It can also import code that's already been written. With a bit of work we should have it that you can keep your diagrams and code in sync so you can look at you program as code or as a diagram and be seeing the same thing in different representations. Unfortunatly this blatantly obvious idea has been patented by Togethersoft (now Borland).

Methods and systems consitent with the present invention provide an improved software development tool. Improved? Patents are for inventions, not things which are slightly improved.

Ebay's patented fraud prevention technique

METHOD AND SYSTEM FOR DETECTING FRAUD

Ebay are keen to emphasis how their online auctions are safe from fraud. Here's how they do it:

A system and method for detecting fraud when facilitating a payment transaction over a global wide area network. The method comprises receiving a sale information (302), receiving payment information (302) from a buyer and analysing a transaction information for fraud (312). If the analysis indicates fraud, an enhanced transaction information is communicated to a human for fraud analysis (320).

So their patented method of detecting fraud is...analyse for fraud. Genius idea. Doesn't have to mention how they'd do it, just that they do. This seems to confirm the rule that you can patent something just for doing it over the internet.

NCR

I worked for NCR in the Summer of 2003.

There's an organisation call the Plain English Campaign, I think most patent applicants could do with following their certification requirements.

Currently, a web site stores Internet data indicating file access status for the files that have been accessed in response to requests from web browsers. Unfortunately, the Internet data are kept as a set of separate and non-correlated data records that are chronologically arranged according to the times at which the requests have been received and processed.

You don't need to read the above paragraph, just note that it calls web access logs "Internet data" and that is says "chronologically arranged according to the time". Then chuckle.

Consequently, the Internet data are not arranged in a format meaningful to management and business operation.

Poor old management eh

The present invention provides method and apparatus for correlating web page files (HTML, SHTML, DHTML, or CGI files) with subject areas (such as sports, news, entertainment, restaurant, shopping, computing, business, health, family, travel and weather). In this way, the Internet data may be presented in a format meaningful to management and business operation.

So it organises web access records. A bit like every other web log analyser program.

Interestingly this patent (filed in 1999) makes the mistake of mentioning specific web page technologies, the lawyer who wrote it should be fired. Most web sites don't use plain HTML or CGI any more (nor SHTML or DHTML whatever they are), but use other programming languages such as PHP.

This patent is so unreadable it just makes very little sence at all. It seems to cover collecting and processing any useful statistics on website access and usage. NCR have claimed money from Amazon, ebay, Yahoo and others because of patents like this, covering obvious ideas that have been done long before the patents were filed (November 2000 here).

A database of items which can be searched for, but only by authorised users. There is simply nothing novel in this patent.

Something completely different

An American patent by an English person called May Shoesmith for a flower.

...originated as a seedling of unknown parentage growing in a field of plants from miscellanious seeds...this plant was discovered by me in 1976

Arn't patents supposed to be inventions? There are millions of new species yet to be discovered, can I patent them?

Summary

I'm not against patents, they're a good way of getting full disclosure of an invention (in return for a limited time monopoly) but there should be limits on what can be patented. Only areas where society benifits should be patentable.

Few people (at least in Europe) argue that algorithms and business methods should be patentable, unfortunatly while that is the present law, that is not the present reality.

Software patents do not benifit society, the place a large restriction on it, especially Free Software.

That patents should be non obvious is agreed almost by definition. Unfortunaly there seems to be a pretty low standard of what non-obvious means set by the Eropean Patent Office.

See also FFII Software Patent Horror Gallery

This article hasn't been triple checked for accuracy or even properly proof-read, comments and criticism welcome.

Jonathan Riddell, January 2002. NCR section added Summer 2003. Article copyleft, GNU FDL