A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Patently daft? 

The Guardian today has an article on the use of patents for software. The issue here is that this can boil down to patenting an idea, which historically has not been possible. The article uses Amazon's patent of the process by which they send an e-mail to the recipient of a gift when the sender does not know their postal address as an example. I took a look at Amazon's conditions to see what other patents they've filed. You can see the list under section 12.

The full list is as follows:

  • 5,715,399 Secure method and system for communicating a list of credit card numbers over a non-secure network

  • 5,960,411 Method and system for placing a purchase order via a communications network

  • 6,006,225 Refining search queries by the suggestion of correlated terms from prior searches

  • 6,029,141 Internet-based customer referral system

  • 6,064,980 System and methods for collaborative recommendations

  • 6,144,958 System and method for correcting spelling errors in search queries

  • 6,169,986 System and method for refining search queries

  • 6,185,558 Identifying the items most relevant to a current query based on items selected in connection with similar queries

  • 6,266,649 Collaborative recommendations using item-to-item similarity mappings

  • 6,317,722 Use of electronic shopping carts to generate personal recommendations

  • 6,360,254 System and method for providing secure URL-based access to private resources

  • 6,366,910 Method and system for generation of hierarchical search results

  • 6,401,084 System and method for correcting spelling errors in search queries using both matching and non-matching search terms

  • The one referred to in the Guardian is 6,360,254 and the problem arises because this idea is probably in use on hundreds of sites around the world. I know that we use something very similar on Economist.com to allow customers to unsubscribe from newsletters, for example. Many sites, too, use a systen that looks remarkably similar to that described in patent 5,715,399 where a customer is asked to identify which credit card stored by the site should be used for a transaction. I could go on, but you see the point.

    The argument that these kinds of patents could be used as a kind of currency to trade with others is, franky, a scary scenario. Aside from the big names, such as Microsoft, Amazon and Barry Diller's empire, developers are unlikely to have the time or resources to file patents for every idea that they have used in any kind of software development.

    As the UK legislation is being discussed now, I suggest that you lobby your MP or start filing (you should know, however, that anything that is developed whilst you are employed by The Economist is probably owned by The Economist).
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