Stupid Patent Of The Month: IBM's Software Patent On Texting And Driving

from the distracted-patent-approvals dept

In the smartphone era, "distracted driving" is a serious, and well-known, problem. Official warnings about poor driving habits are as old as the automobile itself. The New York Times published a Pulitzer-winning series on distracted driving back in 2009.

Increasingly, technological assists are available for those seeking to manage their smartphone's distractions while in the car. Apple integrated a "do not disturb while driving" mode into iOS 11, and Google has long had similar functionality in its Android Auto app. Multitudes of third-party smartphone apps exists to address the issue. Finally, more than 50 companies are working on what may be the ultimate solution to distracted driving: autonomous vehicles.

Unfortunately, the U.S. patent system creates warped incentives for emerging software fields like road-safety features. Rather than competing in a challenging space, some players are seeking broadly-worded patents, then hope to sit back and extract profits later.

That may be the strategy of the International Business Machine Corp., which has acquired more U.S. patents than any other company for decades now. This week, IBM was awarded U.S. Patent No. 10,191,462, describing a "Vehicle electronic receptionist."

IBM likely has the resources to make technology to manage communications while driving. But the '462 patent describes nothing of the sort. Instead, IBM's patent simply describes a computerized decision-making process.

The patent's Claim 1 describes a computer system that determines the "driving context" of a vehicle; analyzes an incoming communication; and then determines an "electronic action" in response, considering various weights and risk factors. The electronic action could be "taking a message, providing a silent or audible notification… [or] providing an automated response."

Other claims add more layers to the analysis, like considering road conditions, doing voice analysis on a voicemail, or considering whether a passenger is sleeping before deciding to put a call through.

Essentially, IBM has described a futuristic car computer system that will analyze the driving conditions and the context of an incoming text or call, then use some unspecified type of AI to decide what to do about the communication. The specification is filled with empty platitudes typical of software patents, like "[t]he computer system may be described in the general context of computer system executable instructions, such as program modules, being executed by a computer system." Aside from hand-waving like this, the patent has essentially no information about how one would actually create the claimed system.

IBM: Ignore the "Troll Scare"

Some of the claims describe good ideas that could be useful parts of automotive software in the future. But the patent is just that—a list of ideas, not instructions for executing the ideas or creating anything. IBM's patent offers no code, no algorithms, not even a vague description of how the rules might work.

We've seen this problem before, in which the Patent Office awards a patent not to the first proven inventor, but to the first applicant who describes a task using technological and legal jargon that patent professionals respect. The Patent Office and the Federal Circuit have been far too willing to approve patents that merely state the idea of applying rules without even specifying what those rules are. The public gains nothing from companies getting patents on the mere idea of using an algorithm to solve a particular problem. Patents like the '462 patent leave all of the hard work—actually writing, debugging, and deploying software that solves the problem under real-world conditions—as an exercise for the reader. And they allow IBM to exclude the public from making or creating any of the wide range of algorithms that these broad patent claims could ensnare.

In our view, IBM's new patent should fail under the Supreme Court's Alice v. CLS Bank decision, which holds that you can't patent basic decision-making processes by adding references to generic computer hardware and software. Given that, it may come as no surprise that IBM is lobbying to throw out the Alice precedent. In a recent interview, top IP executives from IBM explained their plans to demolish Alice by getting Congress to re-work Section 101 of the patent laws, which bars abstract patents. "Every time we try to enforce a patent, we get a 101 defense that comes back at us," said IBM Chief Patent Counsel Manny Schecter. IBM VP Mark Ringes said he's hearing "positive messages from Congress" about changing Section 101 to better suit big patent owners.

Ringes went so far to claim that the "troll scare is largely just noise now." That assertion flies in the face of the patent litigation landscape. By one estimate, about 90 percent of patent lawsuits filed last year in the tech sector were filed by non-practicing entities. IBM appears to be downplaying the damage done by patent trolls because its business interests have become aligned with them. IBM collected more than 9,000 patents in 2017 alone. It uses that massive storehouse of IP to fuel a licensing business that earns more than $1 billion per year

In some cases, that means IBM can let other companies battle for dominance in a particular sector, then step in and demand licensing payments when it's clear who can pay. There's less need for IBM to build new social media apps, when the company can use a patent threat to collect $36 million from Twitter right before its IPO. There's less need to build an e-commerce business, when IBM can sue Amazon over an "electronic catalog" patent that dates back to 1994.

Make no mistake: IBM has an incentive to pile up overly broad patents like this one because these patents might allow it to extract revenues from other companies' future products. A broken patent system encourages companies to use patents, rather than products, to assure dominance in key sectors like driving communications and autonomous driving. Getting rid of Alice would only make the system worse and lead to another flood of do-it-on-a-computer patents. We hope Congress agrees.

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

Filed Under: software patents, stupid patent of the month
Companies: ibm


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  • identicon
    andoid sex doll, 31 Jan 2019 @ 9:55pm

    patent sex

    You system is utterly broken and in need of the bomb. bomb your stupid patent system now you brain dead single use orifices.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Feb 2019 @ 5:07am

    You have to have a working prototype before a patent is approved, don't you?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bamboo Harvester (profile), 1 Feb 2019 @ 5:15am

      Re:

      30-40 years ago you had to submit a prototype, with some few exceptions. Apparently that's no longer a requirement.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Pixelation, 1 Feb 2019 @ 8:05am

        Re: Re:

        "30-40 years ago you had to submit a prototype, with some few exceptions. Apparently that's no longer a requirement."

        They could submit an iphone with Siri in a car...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 1 Feb 2019 @ 9:44am

        Re: Re:

        Nor do you have to describe how it works in a useful amount of detail anymore. Patents used to tell us how to do things we wouldn't easily figure out, and would therefore rarely stumble across by accident. They were specific enough that they'd spur people into looking for alternate solutions, so they could escape the patent and we'd get new technology.

        None of that's true anymore. You just patent the general idea and wait until some major companies accidentally do the same thing. People are rarely learning from patents anymore.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 1 Feb 2019 @ 10:20am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Not correct. Actual requirement can be found at 35 USC 112.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 1 Feb 2019 @ 11:17am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            That describes theory. The patent described in the article would not exist if that matched practice.

            The specification is filled with empty platitudes typical of software patents, like "[t]he computer system may be described in the general context of computer system executable instructions, such as program modules, being executed by a computer system." Aside from hand-waving like this, the patent has essentially no information about how one would actually create the claimed system.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 1 Feb 2019 @ 10:17am

        Re: Re:

        Working models have not been a requirement since the first half of the 1800s.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Feb 2019 @ 10:16am

      Re:

      No.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    John Galt, 1 Feb 2019 @ 6:31am

    Ownership

    Anything that can be put down on paper can needs an owner. The Public Domain can negotiate a fair market price for these things.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Feb 2019 @ 2:51pm

      Re: Ownership

      Hey Jhon boy. How bout you hire an editor before you run your mouth.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Wendy Cockcroft (profile), 4 Feb 2019 @ 2:27am

      Re: Ownership

      So much ignorance in two short sentences! Had your screen name been "Mr. Big Content" I'd have chuckled and laughed it off but you're serious?

      Okay, what's a paper can?

      Assuming "can" is a typo where does that leave my hastily scribbled post-it notes?

      The public domain is not obliged to negotiate jack, which is why it's called "public domain." The implication of the name is that anything covered by PD does not need to be negotiated at all. Have fun selling canned air.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Feb 2019 @ 7:10am

    Anyone can think of a patent, heres a patent for controlling a drone, go to location x, using gps co ordinates , turn on video camera,record video for 20 minutes, return to location y, land on the ground, maybe commands could be sent by a tablet or a phone through 3g network . The whole point of alice is to stop vague overly broad software patents ,based on common basic concepts .Without any detailed
    programming knowledge or expertise almost anyone can file a patent pay a lawyer to make write it in legalese to sound as if it might be
    useful to a programmer or a company . If alice is gone it will make it very hard for any company
    or startup to challenge patent trolls or stop vague broad
    software patents from being used to extract money
    from companys that actually make products or provide a service to consumers . It seems many old legacy companys are trying to earn
    more revenue from broad software patents on basic
    concepts and methods of doing business , rather than to do the hard work of making real innovative software programs and competing in the market place
    and providing a service to users . The economy in the usa would be better if software patents
    did not exist or if they were just used by most companys as a defence to defend themselves aganst extortion against trolls in court.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Feb 2019 @ 7:00am

      Re:

      or if they were just used by most companys as a defence to defend themselves aganst extortion against trolls in court.

      As the troll do not make anything, patents cannot be used as a defense against their attacks. They are however useful in a MAD sort of way in preventing companies that make things from using their patents to gain a monopoly.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 2 Feb 2019 @ 2:27pm

    It seems like Tesla and other companies working on autopilot technology should be concerned about this patent.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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