SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- Priceline.com has dibs on a name-your- price online shopping method. Amazon.com claims exclusive rights to a one-click checkout system. CyberGold has a patent on using incentives to reward consumers for paying attention to Internet ads.
As Internet prospectors staking claims on what they see as rich veins in our online future, these companies are grabbing legal title to cyberspace adaptations of business methods that might seem obvious -- and therefore unpatentable -- in the tangible, offline world.
Getting such patents can make a company's stock price soar and its competitors' sink. It can bring significant venture capital to start-ups, which can trade the patents or use them as leverage in all manner of business deals.
"A patent is like a hammer -- you could use it to build a house or to kill someone," said Thomas Field Jr., patent law professor at the Franklin Pierce Law Center. "People are pursuing patents more vigorously now and people are more aware of copyrights and patents."
Ideas are to the Information Age what iron ore and other raw materials were to the Industrial Age -- only you can't put a fence around ideas. The closest thing is a patent.
Technology companies have been clamoring to get them since 1998, when an appellate court approved a bank's method of managing mutual funds, establishing the precedent that even "abstract ideas constituting disembodied concepts or truths" could be patented.
These so-called business method patents aren't even sketchable, like the inventions of the phonograph or the telephone.
Examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are swamped. The agency has just 38 people considering applications for business method patents, which doubled last year to nearly 2,700. This year's total could reach 6,000 -- 65 percent of which will likely be approved.
The frenzied pace of technological innovation and an extremely competitive Internet marketplace are behind the surge. Dozens of software developers and dot-com executives could be developing similar business methods simultaneously, so securing a patent can be the key to survival.
"Start-ups that are looking to fund themselves -- they need proof that they have assets or they have something that will endure. At the same time, big industry is moving to use the Web and they realized they have to use patents as well, as a defense mechanism and to boost their portfolio," said Greg Maier, a patent lawyer and chairman of the American Bar Association's Intellectual Property Section.
"On top of that," Maier said, "Banks, mutual funds -- anybody now doing business on the Web -- they've been asked to protect their models with patents."
Consider U.S. Patent 6,085,231, filed in January 1998 and granted to AT&T Communications last week: "A method and system of delivering a voice mail message via an e-mail address."
The telecommunications giant now has the patent for a system that appears to cover a core concept for a number of Internet companies, including San Mateo, Calif. …