Software Patent of the Week: Cup Holders AND a Spoiler!

by on June 23, 2006

Every week, I look at a software patent that’s been in the news. You can see previous installments in the series here. This week’s software patent was highlighted by last week’s ruling that Microsoft had to pay its holder $6.1 million.

This is the relevant patent. None of the news stories I could find said which patent it was, probably because the inventor’s name is listed as Carlos Amada in the patent while, the news stories all give it as Carlos Amado. The patent is extremely long, weighing in at more than 20,000 words. It describes, in great detail, the features of a graphical database program that Mr. Armado apparently developed in the early 1990s. From the description, it sounds like it may have been an impressive piece of software, with many useful features integrated in a user-friendly manner.

Is this patent obvious? And did granting it likely promote innovation? I’ll explore those questions below the fold…

Let’s start by considering what the patent itself says about prior art:

The cited PRIOR-ART references are important because the invention provides the benefits of integrating their main characteristics. Like database add-ins, the invention is a spreadsheet enhancement. Yet, it is the only spreadsheet enhancement that implements options for full environment definition and automatic read and write operations between database and spreadsheet structures. The RONSTADT’S FINANCIALS financial forecasting system, by Lord Publishing Inc., and the REFLEX PLUS spreadsheet analysis tool, by Borland International, store their information in database structures similarly to the invention. Also, the RONSTADT’S FINANCIALS financial forecasting system allows formula operation on database structures. Yet, the invention integrates these concepts in spreadsheet instruments. Spreadsheet compilers implement options for full environment definition, but the invention does so while keeping the interactive nature of a full spreadsheet environment.

Thus, as stated before, the invention allows users to interactively develop new environments to program and use finished applications, and to use database files for the storage of information operated in the spreadsheet program. Prior art references do not implement interactive creation of spreadsheet environments.

The patent basically admits that most of its features, taken by themselves, are not new. There were dozens of database and spreadsheet projects on the market in 1990, and they had a variety of innovative features. Hence virtually all of the feature described in Amado’s patent apparently existed in other products before Mr. Armado combined them all into one package.

So it seems that Mr. Amado’s “invention” consisted in taking a bunch of features from several other database products and combining them into a single user-friendly package. This is somewhat akin to a car company patenting the idea of a car that has anti-lock brakes, an onboard navigation system, and remote keyless entry. The patent could have glossy color pictures of the vehicle and describe in great detail how seamlessly the features work together, but it still wouldn’t be an invention worthy of patent protection. Combining several previously-known features into one product isn’t innovative, even if the new product allows you to do things the old one didn’t.

Here are just a few of the “novel aspects” of Mr. Amado’s invention:

  • A browse view in the spreadsheet which shows the contents of a number of different records in the active database file…
  • Layout tools by which the user can write his or her own help screens that explain various screens of an application that user has developed…
  • A set of layout commands by which the user may program his or her own menus and the “look” of the screen…
  • Data validation tools are invoked from the layout menu in the layout environment. The user then selects a range by entering the upper left and lower right corners of the range or by pointing to the range corners with a cursor. Then the user presses “enter” and the range is accepted.

    These are all worthwhile things for a database to have, but the strike me as being akin to adding a spoiler and cup holders to a car. It’s hard to see what the “invention” is.

    It’s also hard to see how a patent like this promotes innovation. The addition of new features to software applications is a routine part of the development process. Most desktop applications these days have more features than any user could possibly use. What makes a piece of software particularly good is less the list of features and more the skill with which the features are integrated into a powerful, bug-free, and user-friendly whole.

    But legalese is too cumbersome a language to describe the thousands of clever implementation details that add up to a great piece of software. Luckily, programmers have come up with a specialized language (several of them, actually) for describing the implementation details of software. It’s called source code. And as luck would have it, we’ve even got an intellectual property regime called copyright for protecting source code. It’s hard to see how patents like this one add anything to the protections already available under copyright law.

    I’ll be on vacation next week, so there’ll be no software patent of the week next Friday.

    Irrelevant aide for the computer geeks in the audience: I thought this paragraph was funny:

    The invention can operate as the software equivalent of a hardware parallel processor for several Turing machines. Additionally, some tools of the invention can make it operate more efficiently than a the parallel Turing machines. Any computation or recognition problem for which there is a known informal algorithm can be handled by a Turing machine. Therefore, the invention can handle and solve all sorts of programming problems.

    Don’t most computing devices operate more efficiently than a Turing machine?

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