Software Patent of the Week: Where Does a 600-pound Patent Sit?

by on August 12, 2006

Every week, I look at a software patent that’s been in the news. You can see previous installments in the series here. Mike Masnick suggested that I analyze this patent this week. It was granted to a company called Cordance, which is suing Amazon, claiming that their one-click ordering system infringes on it. The patent claims methods for automatically synchronizing contact information between client and server computers.

I wouldn’t want to disappoint Mike, so here we go: this patent is enormous. No, seriously, if the Guinness Book for World Records had an entry for “world’s largest patent,” I bet this patent would be in the running. The thing weighs in at about 85,000 words, about the length of a short novel. But that’s not all! Numerous other works, including “Kris Jamsa and Ken Cope, Internet Programming (1995),” “Marshall T. Rose, The Internet Message: Closing the Book with Electronic Mail (1993),” “John December and Neil Randall, The World Wide Web Unleashed (1996),” and assorted RFCs are also “incorporated herein by reference.” When you include all that supplementary information, this patent probably rivals the Bible for wordiness.

The patent is big in other ways too:

In one aspect of the present invention, a communications system is used to coordinate communications between providers and consumers. Provider computers transfer information stored in the provider computer through a communications network to a consumer computer. The information includes processes for updating the transferred information in the consumer computer when the information in provider computer has changed. For “push” processes, the provider computer maintains address data necessary to transfer updated information to various consumers. For “pull” processes, the consumer computer uses information transferred from the provider to access a location where the provider information is stored to determine whether it has been updated and to retrieve it if necessary.

According to another aspect of the present invention, existing communications networks and network accessing programs are used to increase the functionality of the communications system. The Internet and World Wide Web, or similar type networks, are used to access and transfer the information. According to this aspect, information is created and maintained according to a recognized protocol, such as HTTP, MIME and HTML, which can be used to access other information. An appropriate display program, such as a web browser, is used to retrieve and display the information.

So this “invention” encompasses both “push” and “pull” update methods, and includes all Internet-based communications protocols. But that’s not all!

Any communications network may be used to connect the provider computer and the consumer computer, including direct network connections, server-based environments, telephone networks, the Internet, intranets, local area networks (LANS), wide area networks (WANS), the World Wide Web, other webs, and even transfers of data on physical media such as disks or computer-readable paper outputs via postal communications networks. The particulars of the communications network illustrated as preferred embodiments are not limiting features of the invention.

And a little later we’re informed that “any kind of data communications network and any kind of user interface can be used” to implement the invention. So any time anyone uses any communications medium to automatically keep contact information in sync between a business and its customers, it’s infringing on this “invention.”

There’s no way anyone could call this an “invention” with a straight face. The use of “objects”–assuming that even has a clear meaning in this context–is hardly an innovative or original idea. Objects have been widely used for all sorts of programming tasks for decades.

I share Mike’s confusion about how Amazon’s 1-click system could be infringing on the patent, given that Amazon has been doing 1-click shopping for close to a decade now. It might be, as Mike suggests, that they changed their one-click system in the last couple of years in a way that makes Amazon’s 1-click system more like this patent.

The bottom line is that there’s no conceivable way that a patent like this incentivizes the creation of more or better software. It would take an engineer hours–if not days–to even read the whole thing, to say nothing of reviewing all of his code to make sure none of it does any of the things described in the patent. Do we seriously expect every programmer who writes e-commerce software to read this patent (and probably dozens of others like it) just to make sure he hasn’t infringed any of them?

People like Nathan Myhrvold like to compare patents to traditional forms of property like land. But how well would our economy work if, in order to figure out whether you were allowed to build a building in a particular spot, you had to read thousands of pages of dense legal verbiage describing the holdings of other property holders? Such a system would bring our economy to its knees. The only reason that our patent system hasn’t brought the software industry to its knees is that companies tell their engineers to ingore the patent system, and they let their lawyers deal with any fallout.

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