Stupid Patent Of The Month: Infamous Prison Telco Patents Asking Third-Parties For Money

from the another-month,-another-stupid-patent dept

Plenty of businesses rely on third-party payers: parents often pay for college; insurance companies pay most health care bills. Reaching out to potential third-party payers is hardly a new or revolutionary business practice. But someone should tell the Patent Office. Earlier this year, it issued US Patent No. 9,026,468 to Securus Technologies, a company that provides telephone services to prisoners. The patent covers a method of “proactively establishing a third-party payment account.” In other words, Securus patented the idea of finding someone to pay a bill.

It’s been an interesting few weeks for Securus. First, the FCC announced that in response to price gouging by the industry, it would impose per-minute price caps on prison calls. Then The Intercept reported on a massive hack of recorded Securus calls: 70 million recordings, including many calls made under attorney-privilege, were leaked through SecureDrop. We’d like to add November’s Stupid Patent of the Month award.

Securus’ patent has a single independent claim with three steps. These steps are: 1) identifying a “prospective third-party payer”; 2) detecting a “campaign triggering event” (this can be something like an inmate being booked into a facility); and 3) “initiating a campaign to proactively contact” the prospective third-party payer using an “interactive voice response system.” In other words, when an inmate gets booked into the local jail, Securus robocalls a family member to ask if they are willing to set up a pre-paid phone account.

There are two serious problems with this patent. First, the claims are directed to a mind-numbingly mundane business practice and should have been rejected as obvious. Obvious uses or combinations of existing technology are not patentable. Second, the claims are ineligible for patent protection under the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Alice v. CLS Bank?this is a recent Supreme Court decision that holds that an abstract idea (like contacting potential third-party payers) doesn’t become eligible for a patent simply because it is implemented using generic technology. That the system failed to register either of these defects shows deep dysfunction.

In a sane world, a patent examiner would apply common sense and reject Securus’ application out of hand. It includes no technological innovation (it notes that all of the relevant phone technology already exists); instead, it simply describes a basic set of steps for contacting potential third-party payers. Unfortunately, the Federal Circuit has essentially beaten common sense out of the patent system. For example, it recently overruled an examiner who had relied on common sense for the basic fact that electrical plugs have prongs. This repudiation of common sense is how we get patents on filming a yoga class or white background photography.

To the patent examiner’s credit, he did originally reject all of Securus’ claims as obvious based on a combination of earlier publications regarding third-party payment accounts. Securus appealed that rejection to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB). The PTAB overruled (PDF) the examiner. In a victory of hyper-formalism over rationality, the PTAB said that the examiner had not giving sufficiently explicit reasons for combining the teachings of prior publications.

What about Alice v. CLS Bank? Securus’ claims are just an abstract idea implemented on generic technology. They should therefore have been found ineligible under the Supreme Court’s new standard. In fact, when it overruled the examiner on obviousness grounds, the PTAB explicitly noted (in a footnote) that the examiner “may wish to review the claims for compliance under 35 U.S.C. ? 101” in light of the Alice decision. Yet the Patent Office ignored this suggestion and rubber stamped the claims.

We have repeatedly urged the Patent Office (here, here, and here) to do a better job applying Alice to pending applications. It is very disappointing to see patents like this one being granted months after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Even invalid patents are very expensive to defeat in court after they’ve issued. Securus already has a captive market for its services. It does not need the monopoly power of a stupid patent as well.

Reposted from the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Deeplinks blog

Filed Under: , ,
Companies: securus, securus technologies

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Comments on “Stupid Patent Of The Month: Infamous Prison Telco Patents Asking Third-Parties For Money”

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26 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Totally unprofessional

Everyone knows the proper way to object to bad patents and/or the crappy patent system is to say that there are bad patents in general, without actually pointing out any specific examples to support your claim.

Pointing out specific examples of failures of the patent system is completely uncalled for. Issuing vague, non-specific claims that it’s bad in general is both more professional, and more likely to get people to agree.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Totally unprofessional

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. — Upton Sinclair

All those lawyers making money out of the patent system will never agree, while ever the patent system still exists, that the patent system is bad in any way. Economists can whine all they like about the economic damage. The poor old public can suffer slow technological progress, unemployment, high prices, loss of freedom, etc. The “patent experts” are doing very nicely thank you and the public be damned.

The real problem is, as usual, lack of political will to stop a robbery of the poor by the rich.

Shill says:

Re: Totally unprofessional

There is no such thing as a bad patent. All patents are good and the number of patents granted are a measure of progress. At least that’s what all the experts say. So what we need to do to increase progress is for the patent office to grant even more and more patents on everything possible. Then we will be the most advanced society ever because we have the most patents.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Totally unprofessional

“Everyone knows the proper way to object to bad patents and/or the crappy patent system is to say that there are bad patents in general, without actually pointing out any specific examples to support your claim.”

Actually the proper way to agree with the patent system is to say that there are good patents in general without actually pointing to any when asked. Just assert that the majority of patents are good but when asked to give examples pretend like this truth is so obvious that specific examples aren’t needed to prove it.

The truth is if I went through a random sample of patents the overwhelming majority of them would be bad. Try it. But statistics don’t count when it comes to patents since it’s mostly big corporate interests pushing for them.

Ben (profile) says:

Is there no QA in the patent office?

I would think best practices would require review of at least a sampling of a patent examiner’s approved (and rejected) patents and hopefully catch items like this one.

But when a patent gets rejected by the courts, does the patent office follow the trail and tell the examiners involved that it was rejected?

This is basic QA stuff; the patent office should be able to do at *least* this, if not more.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Is there no QA in the patent office?

It might seem like a good idea to tie the patent examiner’s career prospects to the number of patents that get shot down in court. But the problem is that the government, or any bureaucracy, simply never works that way. Employees who dare to apply even the smallest amount of common sense, ethics, or logic in their decision-making process will be overruled and punished by career bureaucrats who follow a strictly “by the book” mentality and follows every rule to the letter no matter how stupid it might be. In this environment it’s the most CYA-oriented people who prosper, while whistleblowers, boat-rockers, and common-sense pushers tend to have short careers.

As most of these government bureaucracies are strictly top-down, its quite possible that the people on the bottom are well aware of the Supreme Court decision, but are unable to act on it until they receive explicit written orders from their boss (who, like everyone else, is also awaiting orders from the top to filter through several layers of management). The rusty gears of bureaucratic government agencies tend to grind very slowly, so it will be interesting to see how long it takes to make a change that in any kind of responsive organization would have been done in a day.

Anonymous Coward says:

I received one of these robo calls. Securus gives inmates a free one minute phone call to their friends and family members.

The call starts out by saying, “This is a free one minute phone call from (inmates name) to inform you about setting up a pre-paid account using your credit card”.

During the free one minute call we were interrupted multiple times by a recording giving the number to call in order to give Securus your credit card number.

So we got about 30 seconds of talk time, and 30 seconds of the robot cutting our conversation off voice hounding me to call a number in order to setup a pre-paid account and give them my credit card information.

Anonymous Coward says:

No details

Even if it weren’t obvious, the patent doesn’t describe anything in enough detail for someone else to implement. “Collect information” how? “Detect…events” how? The ostensible purpose of a patent is to teach useful techniques to the public, to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”; anything that doesn’t should be automatically rejected.

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