From: Bob Rankin (
Subject: BUSPLUS - 30 Aug 1998 - Bad Patents

Something is wrong in cyberspace.

Since the earliest beginnings of the Internet, the netizen's mantra has
always been "share and share alike."  People with answers helped people
with questions. Programmers worked in selfless teams to develop new
tools that made it easier to present and navigate the ever-increasing
amount of data in the online world.

We didn't need no stinkin' copyrights or (perish the thought) patents to
protect our "intellectual property".  It was the open sharing of ideas
and technology that made the Internet what it is today, but all around
me I hear the sound of doors slamming shut and brakes being applied.

The reason?  Bad Patents.

Now patents are not necessarily a Bad Thing, when they are used to
protect a legitimate innovation.  But in the past few months, patents
have been granted for some very basic (and very obvious) Internet
tools and technologies.  This *is* a Bad Thing - read on to learn why.

In a July 1998 ruling, the Federal Court of Appeals said that patents
for a specific way of conducting business are now allowable.  This
opened the floodgates for approval of several patents that threaten to
put major roadblocks in the way of online commerce.  Here are some

Shopping Carts - Thousands of online stores that use electronic shopping
carts enabling shoppers to collect items for purchase now find
themselves in violation of patent number 5715314, owned by the Open
Market corporation.  I guess the patent examiner never paused to wonder
why nobody ever patented the use of shopping carts in real-world grocery

Secure Online Payments - Have you used your credit card to make an
online purchase recently?  Oops, your friendly Internet shopkeeper just
violated patent number 5724424, also awarded to Open Market.  Incredible
as it may sound, the US Patent & Trademark Office did in fact award
ownership of the concept of conducting a secure online credit card
transaction to one company.  Again, patenting such an idea in the
offline world would be laughable.  Can you imagine somebody saying "I
invented the idea of accepting credit cards in a restaurant. Anyone else
who wants to do likewise has to cut me in on the deal." ??

Sounds like "Open Market" is out to close some doors, namely those of
convenience and savings for the Internet consumer.  Their name is just a
little bit ironic, in view of the fact that they are attempting to
extract blood money (in the form of licensing fees) from just about
everyone who wants to do business online.  But wait... things get even

Ads With Incentives - For decades, perhaps centuries, marketers have
offered rewards to get people to look at their advertising.  Surely
you've opened an envelope with a free pen or a dollar bill inside - a
little incentive to read the enclosed sales pitch.  Well Cybergold says
they invented the idea of rewarding people to do the same thing in an
online setting.  And some overworked or incompetent patent examiner
agreed, awarding them patent number 5794210.  You wanna reward people for
clicking on your banner ads?  Not so fast - Nat Goldhaber, Cybergold CEO
has his hand out for that licensing fee.

Email Hotlinks - Say you're the owner of a small online Mom & Pop shop that
sells gourmet foods.  Sending all your past customers an e-mail that says
"Click Here To View Our Monthly Specials" may seem like a great idea.  But
NetDelivery, holder of the recently issued patent number 5790793, may haul
you in to court for infringing on their "push technology" ideas.

It all seems a bit ridiculous, to say the least.  In order to qualify
for a patent, an idea is supposed to be "new" and "not obvious".  The
USPTO examiners may lack knowledge of computer and Internet
technologies, but for crying out loud, most of these ideas have been
well established in the business world for decades.

And this may just be the beginning of a torrent of new Internet related
patents that could put a serious crimp in your style, be you surfer or
shopkeeper.  What's next?  A patent on placing graphics on a web page?
The point is, these things are not only obvious to anyone who's ever
clicked a mouse, they are essential concepts to the development of
online commerce.  Nobody should be allowed to put up a tollgate on the
Internet that makes it harder for people to set up shop, or more
expensive for people to buy online.

Go ahead and patent anything, if all you want is a feather in your cap.
Three cheers for companies like IBM and Netscape, who hold patents on
some very basic computer and Internet technologies.  They've placed them
in the public domain, so anyone can use them with nothing more than a
tip of the hat.

Remember when Microsoft seriously tried to prevent others from using the
word "windows"?  They backed off in the face of widespread scorn and
outrage from the masses.  Similarly, Compuserve got egg-faced when they
threatened to extract a licensing fee from people wanting to use the
ubiquitous GIF graphics file format.

The same thing should happen to the likes of Goldhaber, Open Market and
others who try to assert ownership of obvious and essential Internet
concepts, then threaten legal action against anyone with the audacity to
challenge them.  They should be shunned, scorned and shamed into
dropping those patents or placing them in the public domain where they

If you want to be part of the action, here are some relevant links:

  Open Market - 

  Cybergold - 

  Netdelivery - 

  USPTO Home Page - 

  IBM Patent Database - 

  Wired Article: "Patenly Absurd" -      

Here's to an ever expanding Internet!
Regards, Bob Rankin

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