Patent Lawyers And Business Model Patents: Perfect Together

from the think-they-have-a-bias? dept

With all the discussion concerning problems with the patent system, it's no surprise that we often get patent lawyers contacting us, claiming that we misunderstand patent law. We have spent plenty of time discussing things with them, and the summary always seems to boil down to a tautology: "the patent system works fine, because it works." However, as we see case after case where the patent system is clearly stifling innovation and rewarding those who either failed in the marketplace or chose not to compete at all, what's become even clearer is that the patent system works for patent attorneys. They make a killing off of the system, and have every incentive in the world to keep it as is -- even to the point of rationalizing all sorts of reasons why the system "works" in the face of increasing evidence that there are real problems with the system. There's a concise article over at News.com that points out that making business model patents legal (such as the one Netflix is now threatening Blockbuster with) was almost entirely the work of one specific patent attorney. Almost no one had been pushing for business model patents, but the judge who wrote the decision allowing such patents had been one of the patent attorneys who helped draft the patent law it relied on (the article doesn't mention him by name, but it's Giles Rich). In his decision, he claimed that it was "Congressional intent" to allow business model patents -- which he should know if he helped draft the law, which is why he's sometimes referred to as "the father of the patent system (though, it makes you wonder why he was presiding over this case). Unfortunately, that very same judge had written elsewhere that there was no real Congressional intent in the redraft of the patent law. They had been too busy to think about it, and simply turned it over to the patent attorneys (such as himself) to draft the new law as they saw fit. So, we have a patent attorney, who stands to greatly benefit from getting more patents out there writing the law -- and then later being the very judge who said business model patents were perfectly legal.

Meanwhile, if you think this is only a US-based issue, that may not be true for long. Simon Hart, who was involved in the case, alerts us to a new patent ruling in the UK, that also touches on the issue of business model patents. While the decision in the US noted there was no such thing as a "business method exception" to patents (claiming such a concept was obsolete), such an exception does still work in the UK -- and is apparently used quite frequently to reject questionable patents. However, in this latest rulling, the judge appears to have made something of... well... an exception to the business model exception. He recognized that it could be possible to allow a patent for business models if the business model is simply a component to the overall business, rather than an entire description of the business. If this sounds both confusing and potentially problematic, there are probably plenty of patent attorneys out there who are willing to start using this new loophole in the UK to push through some fun new patents there as well. In other words, it doesn't look like things are going to get better any time soon.
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  1. identicon
    Susheel Daswani, 5 Apr 2006 @ 3:38pm

    Subject Matter is only 1/4 of the issue....

    I am a patent-lawyer-to-be, and I'll be the first to admit the patent system is over-protective of 'inventors'. That said, the *real* problem with patents today is the low standard of non-obviousness. Patents should be new, useful, and non-obviousness, and the last criteria has always been considered the gatekeeper of the system (it has been called "the ultimate condition of patentability"). The test for non-obviousness is commonly referred to as:

    "[T]he scope and content of the prior art are to be determined; differences between the prior art and the claims at issue are to be ascertained; and the level of ordinary skill in the pertinent art resolved. Against this background, the obviousness or nonobviousness of the subject matter is determined."

    Unfortunately, as is pointed out by this post, the PTO has an incentive to give the benefit of the doubt to inventors when it comes to obviousness. The NetFlix patent should not have been granted. Implementing the NetFlix system is the hard part, not architecting the system (as BlockBuster's troubles reproducing it demonstrate). The Web has opened up a lot of new business methods, but they all shouldn't be patentable simply because they are now possible.

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