Can’t Make Sense of Internet Patents

1 02 2009

gnome1.jpgDear Rich: I have a question. Can you explain how a common sense thing like “selling pictures online” can be patented? I read recently about a settlement by Pictage against a company that had patented a method for selling pictures online. Where’s the sense in this? Why isn’t just the code for the method protected and not the idea? I’m so glad you asked. As to your first question — where’s the sense in this? — the Dear Rich staff is unable to provide an answer except to say that “common sense” and the law are, at best, distant cousins.

As to your second question, our staff believes you may be mixing copyright and patent law. Under copyright law, the code, and not the method of business would be protected. Under patent law, the business method is protected, which is why so many companies sought and obtained iffy patent protection for their online commerce systems during the dot-com boom (one-click shopping anyone?). Many of these patents — such as the patent at issue (“method and apparatus for storing and printing digital images”) — were filed during the period preceding the bursting Internet bubble and recently, a dispute about one such patent (filed in 1997), has stirred up issues regarding the legitimacy of all so-called Internet or business-method patents. As pointed out elsewhere, the company that owns the patent at issue doesn’t operate a digital photo website; it appears to exist as a patent-holding company that pursues infringers, an entity sometimes derogatorily referred to  as a patent troll. Although this blog prides itself on providing practical information (and we don’t want you to shy away from doing the right thing), we do suggest staying out of the way of  patent trolls since they are expert at steam rolling those who cannot afford to take them on in court.



Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment