Theres an old saying that goes, "things need to get really bad before they can get better." It looks like we may have reached that point with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
The patent system has been in rough shape for a while. The columns and editorials written in eWEEK alone about the failings of the system could fill a good-size book. I mean, really—lets not forget there was a patent out there claiming to cover hyperlinking.
But a couple of recent patents have made the critical mistake of going after the wrong people—people with enough clout to spur reform of the patent system.
The first of these dubious patents belongs to a company called Cendant, which has Amazon squarely in its sights. I have to admit that I did feel a little bit of guilty pleasure at seeing Amazon as the target of a dubious patent. We are, after all, talking about the company that filed the king of dubious patents—for one-click e-commerce.
But this still doesnt make Cendants patent right.
Cendants patent, "System and Method for Providing Recommendation of Goods or Services Based on Recorded Purchasing History," was awarded in late 1997. If youve had any experience with the Web since its inception, the only response to this patent can be, "Are you kidding me?" I dont think I would be on shaky ground in saying that some of the first 10 Web-based stores used similar technology to recommend items to customers.
As soon as I read about this patent, I remembered a conversation I had in the mid-1990s with a group of developers who were starting a company called Net Perceptions. These guys were touting a technology that would come to be called "collaborative filtering," a capability that Amazon has made classic with its product recommendations. (For example, "People who bought this book also bought ... ")
I distinctly remember one of the developers saying that this was a big step forward because, before that time, Web sites based their recommendations only on an individual buyers purchase history. I didnt dispute this because its the plain truth. I mean, it didnt take a genius to figure that out.
Like all of the worst patents, the Cendant patent reaches well beyond its main target. In fact, youd be hard-pressed to find an e-commerce site that doesnt provide recommendations a la Amazon. So, now, the entire online commerce business has to hold its breath because the patent office isnt concerned with doing things the right way.
But as bad as the Cendant patent is, it isnt even the worst or most potentially damaging one to make itself felt recently.
Dell is currently facing patent claims from a company called DE Technologies, which holds a patent in the innovative, completely nonobvious and never-been-done-before process of "patent covering international transactions handled over the computer."
Thats right—selling stuff to people in other countries using a computer.
Why did DE Technologies stop at international commerce? Since it was willing to go that far, the company might as well have tried to patent selling anything, any way, at any time. Im sure the patent office wouldnt have seen anything wrong with that.
So now we have a patent that basically affects almost every large company in the world. This straw does a little more than break the camels back—its more like squishing the camel flat.
So, to all of you big-shot technology CEOs who read this column, it is high time that this little patent party ended. As my mom used to say, "Its all fun and games until someone loses an eye."
And to Mr. Bezos and Mr. Dell, it might be a good idea to gather together all your friends, and even your enemies, and take a little trip to Washington. Let the gang there know that the current patent system has to be fixed—now—before it brings the entire information economy to a screeching halt.
Or, you could sit around and wait to see what dangers the next dubious patent holds for your businesses—and for technology overall.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.