Software Patent of the Week: Litigation Live

by on September 16, 2006 · 2 comments

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 our patent comes via Ars, which reported on Thursday that a company called Paltalk has sued Microsoft over allegations that its XBox Live gaming platform violates two of Paltalk’s patents.

We’ll consider the older of the two patents, which you can see here. It covers a “server-group messaging system for interactive applications.” In a nutshell, this “invention” coordinates the transmission of packets among video game players in precisely the same way that mailing list software coordinates the transmission of an email to multiple email addresses.

The patent describes a variety of functions of this “invention.” For example, it offers the ability to aggregate messages from several different sources and send them out bundled together as a single message. This is precisely analogous to what mailing lists do with their “daily digest” feature. It also includes protocols for creating groups and adding and removing computers from groups. There are, again, precise analogues to these functions in ordinary mailing list software.

Mailing list software existed years before this patent was filed in 1998. The only difference between this invention and mailing list software is that the type of message they send is different (emails versus realtime gaming notifications), and the time horizons involved are different (minutes or hours versus seconds). But neither of those difficulties really changes the technical design principles involved. This is an obvious patent.

This is a recurring problem with software patents: often someone takes a well known software design, apply it in a new context, and declare it a new, patentable invention. But although the result may look superficially different, under the hood the software is very similar. The power of computer programming comes from the ability to use a small number of well-understood software techniques to solve a wide variety of problems. We’d think it absurd to patent the idea of using a hammer on a new kind of nail. It’s no less absurd to patent the idea of using a well-known software technique in a new domain.

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