How Can They Patent That?
Hey you, downloading audio or video clips from the Net—yeah, you! Drop that animated GIF. Put down that QuickTime movie. Forget about those MP3 files. Didn't you know that buying copies of those things over the Internet is patented? If someone doesn't pay royalties, someone's going to be liable.
Patent fear is gripping the Net these days, as media coverage highlights new patents covering the flow of multimedia, music, money, and whatnot over the Internet. In the past, news stories about patents were tales filled with strange chemicals, weird industrial processes, arcane contraptions with odd levers, or microscopic things. To get a patent in the old days, you couldn't be just any schmoe—you needed horn-rim glasses and a white lab coat. But the latest batch of patents that focus on the Internet aren't anywhere near as impressive. In fact, they look as if any schmoe did “invent” them—by taking some everyday occurrence and adding to it the phrase “with a computer network.”
Consider U.S. Patent 5848161, which describes the flash of genius that hit two Canadians and an American: They “invented” the practice of locking up the data traveling over the Internet between the customer and the store—that is, they use encryption functions to hide credit card account numbers from prying eyes.
Or consider patents 5191573 and 5675734, created by Arthur Hair when he lived in Pittsburgh. He claims to have invented the concept of “selling electronically … through telecommunications lines, the desired digital video or digital audio signals”—in short, pay-perview over the Internet.
It's not really fair for me to single out these three patents, because there are many more like them. Plus, it's hard to summarize the scope of a complex legal document in a short paragraph. (And no doubt some readers will want to point to similar patents I've been