Patent Reform Sorely Needed

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 29, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Patent Reform Sorely Needed


Byline: Fred Reed, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It's about time. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog, has undertaken the elimination of overly broad patents on technology. They hurteverybody but, being hidden in the unwatched dusty corners of bureaucracy, are known to almost no one. The owners of these questionably legitimate patents, says the EFF, are using them to brutalize small businesses that do not have the resources to fight back.

The problem is patents that cover too much. As an example (and one targeted by the EFF), consider one-click shopping (Patent No. 5,960,411), used by Amazon.com. The technique allows Amazon customers who have provided a shipping address and credit-card number to order a book by clicking one button.

It's a good technique, but an obvious one to anyone trying to simplify a store on the Web. The result of such a questionable patent can be that everyone else has to use more cumbersome methods, or else pay licensing fees.

Another example given by the EFF is technology that allows for paying with a credit card online (U.S. Patent No. 6,289,319). Why does anyone rate exclusive rights to the obvious?

Paying with a credit card is paying with a credit card. You give your number to the merchant who charges the purchase to the card. Whether you do it by telephone, in person, online, or by mail doesn't change it.

The issuance of such shaky patents calls into question the training and qualifications of the patent examiners who issued them. If you have talked to employees of the Patent and Trademark Office off the record, you will have heard the complaints about questionable hiring practices, high turnover, and lack of expertise.

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