Thursday, January 6, 2011

Software patents help what, again?

Via James Robertson, I read that Interval is suing about a dozen major software companies over patent infringement. I am having trouble finding an original link to the case information, but here's a link to one copy of Interval's opening volley.

Here's the IP Interval is suing over:
The ’507 patent describes an invention that enables a user to efficiently review a large body of information by categorizing and correlating segments of information within the body of information and generating displays of segments that are related to the primary information being viewed by the user.
From this alone, you might thing they have some advanced technique for categorizing and showing related information. No, they really are claiming that the whole idea of showing users a list of items related to the one they are looking at is an Interval invention. For example, here is their complaint about eBay:
Defendant eBay has infringed and continues to infringe one or more claims of the ’507 patent under 35 U.S.C. § 271. eBay operates the and websites, which provide content such as product listings and advertisements to users. In order to help users find additional content that may be of interest, the software and hardware that operate these websites compare the available content items to determine whether they are related. When a user views a particular content item, the and websites generate displays of related content items so as to inform the user that the related items may be of interest. For example, as demonstrated by Exhibit 8, when a user views a particular product listing on, the website displays both the selected product information (identified by the orange box) and links to other related products (identified by the green boxes). The hardware and software associated with the eBay websites identified above and any other eBay websites that perform this function infringe at least claims 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 27, 28, 31, 34, 37, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 70, 71, 74, 77, and 80 of the ’507 patent under 35 U.S.C. § 271.

The theory behind patents is that, without patent protection, nobody would have invented the idea in question. By offering patent protection, companies will devote resources to research that they otherwise would not have. Can anyone seriously believe, however, that we would have more innovation if all of AOL, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, Yahoo, or YouTube had honored this patent and not shown similar items on their web sites? Does anyone believe that if Interval hadn't "invented" this idea, that nobody else would have?

An additional part of the rationale for patents is that the idea are difficult to develop, that they would only emerge if significant private resources were dedicated to its research. That, too, is hard to believe for this idea. How long did it take the guys at Interval to come up with this idea? Five minutes, maybe?

I have an idea how to stimulate the software industry. Stop issuing software patents.

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