Stupid Patent Of The Month: Carrying Trays On A Cart

from the happy-(patented)-travels dept

As you head home for the holidays, perhaps passing through a checkpoint or two, take some time to think about U.S. Patent No. 6,888,460, “Advertising trays for security screening.” The owner of this patent, SecurityPoint Holdings, Inc., has sued the United States government for infringement. SecurityPoint recently won a trial on validity [PDF] and the case will now proceed to a damages phase. So, unless the validity decision gets overturned on appeal, we’ll soon be paying tax dollars for the idea of moving trays on carts.

Although the title of the patent mentions advertising, some of its claims do not require any ads at all. In fact, the patent is so broad it reads on almost any system of using trays and carts at a checkpoint. The first claim of the patent (with limitations labeled), reads as follows:

1. A method comprising:

[a] positioning a first tray cart containing trays at the proximate end of a scanning device through which objects may be passed, wherein said scanning device comprises a proximate end and a distal end,

[b] removing a tray from said first tray cart,

[c] passing said tray through said scanning device from said proximate end through to said distal end,

[d] providing a second tray cart at said distal end of said scanning device,

[e] receiving said tray passed through said scanning device in said second tray cart, and

[f] moving said second cart to said proximate end of said scanning device so that said trays in said second cart be passed through said scanning device at said proximate end.

In plain English, this claim means: send trays through a checkpoint and use two carts to move the trays back and forth. As is common with patents, the claim uses obtuse language for ordinary things. For example, the word-salad at limitation [f] pretty much just says: “use a cart to move trays from the end of the checkpoint back to the start.”

In a trial before the Court of Federal Claims, the government argued that this claim was obvious because moving trays using carts was well-known in many contexts. The court disagreed. The court suggested that even if using carts to move trays was well-known, the government needed prior art specifically for security checkpoints (arguably the government had such evidence, but the court disagreed on that point too).

In fairness to SecurityPoint, evidence at trial suggested that it had developed a good system for managing trays and carts within the confined space of an airport security checkpoint. But the patent’s claims are far broader than any specific solution. This is something we often see in patent law: someone develops a (fairly narrow) innovation, but then broadly claims it, capturing things that are well-known or banal. This sort of claiming hurts follow-on inventors who develop their own ideas that wouldn’t infringe any narrower claim, and weren’t invented by the patent holder. But because the broader claim is allowed, their own inventions become infringing. Here, claim 1 is not limited to any particular kind of cart, tray, or scanner. The claim really reads on using a couple of carts to move trays and, in our view, should have been found obvious.

Together with Public Knowledge, we recently filed an amicus brief [PDF] asking the Supreme Court to consider the obviousness standard in patent law. We argue that, as applied by the Federal Circuit, obviousness law has abandoned common sense. Specifically, we argue that the Federal Circuit has failed to apply a Supreme Court case called KSR v. Teleflex that calls for a flexible, common sense approach. We hope the Supreme Court takes that case. If it does, it might help us save some tax dollars that would otherwise have gone to SecurityPoint. Unfortunately, whatever happens, we’ll likely still be stuck waiting at airport checkpoints.

Reposted from EFF’s Stupid Patent of the Month series.

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Comments on “Stupid Patent Of The Month: Carrying Trays On A Cart”

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Wyrm (profile) says:

Let’s sum it up: it’s obvious, overbroad and has lots of prior art, both in this exact context and others.
But it’s a valid patent, which means it encourages innovation. By preventing both actual innovation and an obvious use of an old technology (the cart) without any new technology. Which means the only thing actually patented there is a process. An idea.
This is literally “use non patented object in a specific way” (not even an innovative one at that).

How did that meet any standard of patentability?

timmaguire42 (profile) says:

how much patent reform

could be acheived by giving words their real meaning? Methods aren’t inventions. Obvious means not requiring much insight or inspiration. Independent invention should be evidence of obviousness. Making a tweak to an existing thing, even if useful, is not an invention. If it is useful, it will be adopted even without patent protection.

IP is not a positive good to be spread far and wide, it is a necessary evil to be applied where and when necessary.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: how much patent reform

IP is not a bad thing conceptually. At least in terms of patents. There should be some reward for developing inventions to prevent them from immediately being stolen. Especially when the development costs are high but the reproduction costs are low.

The issues we have are patents are generally written to be super broad and obtuse. They use non-standard language to prevent others from finding them and claim all sorts of obvious crap. The claims need to be specific and definitive. I think figures and images should be part of the claims to improve that definitiveness. The goal of patents was originally to teach and inform others of your invention to expand the general knowledge. You can’t learn a damn thing from reading a modern patent.

Code and business processes should not generally be patentable (maybe the coding language itself? Probably not even then)

Groaker (profile) says:

I have a patent on the use of the mouth for, but not limited to,speaking, spitting, eating, sucking on a straw, chewing, osculating, cunnilingus, fellatio and all other discovered and undiscovered. I also have a patent on the use of hands, fingers, and toes for any and all types of communication including keyboarding.

It is therefor illegal for any person to have communicated the putative cart paten cart patent into law, or for any other purpose.

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