Public Knowledge Deflates Another Dubious Software Patent By Reducing It To Seven Lines Of BASIC

from the GOTO-patent-invalidation dept

Public Knowledge is back at it, carving holes in dubious software patent claims by distilling supposedly “complex” ideas into a minimal amount of code. Late last year, Public Knowledge filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit involving Ultramercial, whose disputed patent basically involved appending “on the internet” to a very basic idea.

In that case, “watching a video on the internet” had been turned into a 349-word, 11-step process that convinced the patent reviewer the process was somehow protectable. Charles Duan of Public Knowledge took that word salad and converted it into 16 lines of code, poking rather large holes in Ultramercial’s inflated description.

Duan has done it again. In an amicus brief filed on behalf of CLS Bank, Public Knowledge explains that Alice Corp.’s patent claims cover a very general and obvious abstract idea: the exchange of funds via a third party.

Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank International concerns a group of patents on third-party escrow, an age-old technique where two people exchange money through a third party. It’s what most people use to buy a house. It’s PayPal.

Obviously, no one can get a patent on escrow. Abstract ideas (like escrow) can’t be patented. Why not? Because ideas are the starting point for every new business, technology, and product. Patents on ideas would squash innovation. As the Supreme Court explained in another recent case, ideas are the “basic tools of scientific and technological work,” and a patent on an idea “might tend to impede innovation more than it would tend to promote it.”

So, how did Alice Corp. get this patent? By adding a few words to the idea: “done by a computer.” Of course, to get protection for an abstract (and simple) idea, you have to use considerably more words than that. Here’s the description, which makes it sound much more impressive than it actually is.

a computer, coupled to said data storage unit and said communications controller, that is configured to…

(b) electronically adjust said first account and said third account in order to effect an exchange obligation arising from said transaction between said first party and said second party after ensuring that said first party and/or said second party have adequate value in said first account and/or said third account, respectively.

Here’s Charles Duan’s reduction of that process, in BASIC no less:

10 LET account1 = 200.00
20 LET account3 = 300.00
30 INPUT “Value to exchange for transaction”; exchange
40 IF account1 < exchange THEN PRINT “Inadequate value”: STOP
50 account1 = account1 – exchange
60 account3 = account3 + exchange
70 PRINT “Instruction to 1st institution: adjust 2nd account by ”; -exchange

Now, extremely efficient code isn’t always the sign of a simple process, but patenting an age-old abstract idea like escrow is, first of all, something that (theoretically) isn’t allowed by our patent process. Adding “with a computer” doesn’t suddenly turn a non-patentable idea into protectable IP… or at least it shouldn’t. But as Ultramercial proved, abstract ideas can and do become prime patent troll properties. As Anna Sallstrom of Public Knowledge notes, granting dressed-up ideas patent protection is nothing more than “trading progress for abstract patents.” Hopefully, the Supreme Court will see Alice Corp.’s claims for what they are: escrow + a computer.

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Companies: ultramercial

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Comments on “Public Knowledge Deflates Another Dubious Software Patent By Reducing It To Seven Lines Of BASIC”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Software shouldn’t be patented. That is like patenting a specific set of moves in a game of Chess. Nope. Can’t move there. That move sequence is covered by patent 131928152. Wait, actually, any move from here out is covered. You will either have to forfeit or pay the $.75 cover charge fee for every move after this point. There is also the additional $2.00 check fee and the $25 checkmate fee as all forms of check and checkmate have been patented.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I would even go so far to question copyright since there are only so many ways to efficiently do a certain task in any given programming language.

Copyright over the whole may be justified, but not over the individual functions.

However, if you include comments, sure why not. Can live without those or write my own.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Each time I’ve registered my copyright for the source of my software, I submitted a “masked” version of the source (basically, a printout of the source with a grating laid over the top so that you can make out about half of the text.)

That this is acceptable leads me to believe that the copyright office does just as you suggest — copyright the whole, but not a few specific lines or functions.

I never actually tested this, though. Although my software has been pirated plenty, I’ve never felt it prudent or cost-effective to sue anyone about it.

Justin Olbrantz (Quantam) says:

Re: Re: Re:

My experience in the software and firmware industries leads me to believe it goes even further than that. All other things being equal (age is another big variable in the equation), tech savviness is inversely proportionate to concern for copyright.

Generally in tech companies it is the executives and upper management (and obviously the legal department) that are up in arms about piracy. Most of the people who actually make the stuff are far less concerned.

To restate something I’ve said before, of all the programmers I know and work with that I know their personal position on piracy of, only a single one is both en elite programmer and significantly concerned about piracy (and you can bet I was surprised when I learned his position).

Thrudd (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

A slight correction ….and often the results more accurate. should be … the results repeatable and consistent. That is the basic foundation of automation, making widget 1 exactly the same as widget 1 million or 1 billion.

Software can not add accuracy. Your output is, at best, as good as your input. Your results are more often than not, less accurate due to errors in logic, conversion, translation or coding. Entropy is increased. GIGO

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