Patent mania

Just in time for Christmas, we passed a technology threshold: US Patent number 6,000,000 was issued, on December 7, 1999.

Its title is "Extendible method and apparatus for synchronizing multiple files on two different computer systems." Sounds pretty useful, eh? Of course it does, we're all struggling with the unmet need to keep copies of information synchronized one way or the other (sooner or later). It's only going to get worse, as our cell phones get bookmark lists, and PDAs keep contact information, and we trade stocks on the 'net and track our portfolios of Linux IPOs on MyQuicken or MyFidelity or MyYahoo or MyWhatever.

Last 2.3 million US Patents Issued vs. time

It's not a terribly new idea. The patent application was filed in May of last year but continued from a 1995 application, and it cites patents back to 1984 and "other references" from Casio, Sharp, Hewlett Packard, Sun and Microsoft. As soon as computing devices proliferated to the point of one person having (access to) more than one, this problem needed to be (and was) solved.

The abstract sounds more like a product brochure than the dry technical prose you'd expect: "An easy to use extendible file synchronization system is introduced for sharing information between a handheld computer system and a personal computer system. The synchronization system is activated by a single button press." Ah, an easy to use system, that might well be novel!

We've all seen plenty of hard-to-use software for this and other mundane computer functions. recently won a patent dispute on their "one-click shopping" and forced Barnes and Noble to make their system require two clicks. (Do you suppose B&N has filed for a patent on two-clicks?)

Consider another example: when I surf the web from home (at least), I like to open lots of browser windows, to download my fill of reading material quickly and then get off the phone, reading through it at my leisure. With my current browser (Netscape v4.7 on Win95), this involves a right click on a hyperlink and a left click on the resulting menu for "open in new window." Other versions of Netscape, running on hp-ux with a three-button mouse attached, perform this function with a single click of the middle button. A nice little feature. A modest increment of ease-of-use, but the two-click system doesn't trouble me, nor slow me down appreciably.

I don't know if the Netscape folks wrote a patent application over that (I'm guessing they didn't), but recently awarded patents seem to indicate that they could have been awarded a patent for that sort of thing.

The abstract is just window dressing, of course, although it is expected to be representative of what follows. The heart of a patent is its claims, which (are supposed to) define specific inventions that others can not use during the term of the patent, unless the holder says they can.

The first claim (of 27)

1. A method of sharing information on a first computer system and a second computer system, said method comprising:

connecting said first computer system to said second computer system with a data communications link;

providing a library of functions in said second computer system for accessing information on said first computer system;

creating a conduit program database, said conduit program database for storing a list of conduit programs that may be executed,

registering a first conduit program by placing an identifier for said first conduit program in said conduit program database, said first conduit program comprising a computer program on said second computer system for performing a specific data transfer task;

successively executing a set of conduit programs identified within said conduit program database from a manager program, each of said conduit programs accessing said library of functions for communicating with said first computer system.

Claim #1 of US patent 6,000,000 is one lovely convoluted sentence as it must be, and it protects against infringement by any sort of thing ("method" things in this case) that "reads on it" clause for clause. In slightly more readable language, my reading of this says that 3Com (the assignee of the work of Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Albanese) has invented connecting two computers and exchanging information between them.

How can this be?

Consider the essential elements:

A data communications link
covers everything beyond "sneakernet" using floppies, tape, etc.
A library of functions
what software doesn't comprise a library of functions these days?
A conduit program database
can you say "registry"? How about a directory (a.k.a. folder, a.k.a. file listing, etc.) with executable programs identified in some fashion? That's a database, and it can include "conduit programs" as well as any other sort of programs.
Registering a first conduit program...
in order to transfer files between two computers, they have to establish some sort of agreed upon protocol, one way or the other. The form of this described might be narrower than all possible methods, but working the other way, it might well be "extendible" as they say, to every way of doing this.
Executing these conduit programs with a manager program
Hmm, if we consider the operating system as a manager program (what else could it be?), doesn't this describe every computer system you know about?

Let's see, if I press one, two, or thirty mouse buttons to follow a hyperlink, didn't I just connect two computer systems with a data communications link, "successively executing a set of conduit programs identified within said conduit program database from a manager program, each of said conduit programs accessing said library of functions for communicating with said first computer system."

Forget about "ease of use," "synchronization," "hand held" or "personal" computers, this is a claim on any networking of two computers!

The mind boggles. I don't imagine this particular patent is unique, it just came to my attention out of "odometer interest," since my last patent was in the 5,900,000s. Imagine hundreds of thousands of patents on software "methods" that claim the universe, and then dissect their claims down to the tiniest detail of what's been obvious to programmers for decades... We are talking some serious job security for intellectual property lawyers. Let's hope they're all happy to be paid with stock options, and they can just ride the expanding bubble of market momentum.

Text Dec. 11, 1999, graph updated Nov. 16, 2001.

Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

Friday, 16-Nov-2001 22:41:34 MST