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
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
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
"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. …