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Congratulations IBM for 'inventing' out-of-office email. You win Stupid Patent of the Month

No need for a big panic, says Big Blue

Updated You know the out-of-office automatic emails that we've been using for the past 20 years? Well, IBM has just been awarded a patent that states it practically invented the system.

IBM applied for the patent seven years ago and has amended its filing since then. As a result, the US Patent Office issued Patent No 9,547,842 on January 17, winning Big Blue the EFF's Stupid Patent of the Month award for February.

"As many office workers know, automated out-of-office messages were a 'workplace staple' decades before IBM filed its application," the EFF's Daniel Nazer said on Tuesday. "The Patent Office is so out of touch that it conducted years of review of this application without ever discussing any real-world software."

The patent covers a system whereby the user inputs when they will be out of the office and when they will return, and the system sends out notifications to incoming emails between those dates, saying that the recipient is away and including any message the user wants to add. If that sounds familiar it's because the same system has been in use for decades.

Here's how Big Blue set out the stall for its unique design in its patent application:

When the out of office agent is enabled, it automatically responds to e-mail that arrives when the user is out of the office. While configuring the agent, the user can specify the text of the message, and set rules on who should receive the special alert messages or who should not receive the alert messages. The out of office agent also provides an option to mark the user's calendar “busy” for the time he/she is away. The agent generates automatic alert messages once for each person who sends e-mail to the user, even if the person sends several messages during the user's absence.

It appears that the patent office is either unaware that this is a common feature of email systems, or it is working on the principle that as no one thought to patent the systems, IBM can claim ownership. It's symptomatic of a federal agency that has been subverted from its original purpose.

The patent office was supposed to protect inventors and allow them to monetize their discoveries without others stealing their work. Patents didn't cost much to gain, but the office went through and carefully considered each filing on its merits.

In the 1990s, Congress cut back on funding to the agency and insisted it become self-sustaining or even a profit center. As a result the number of patents issued rose dramatically, as did fees, and the rigor that filings were subject to was reduced.

At the same time companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Intellectual Ventures saw the value in collecting patents and turning them into a significant revenue stream through licensing. Businesses started filing patents for anything and everything and using them to sue rivals for royalties.

So we're now in the ludicrous position where Microsoft makes more money per Android handset than Google does because it holds the right patents. Nowadays, if you're a startup, the possibility of patent infringement is going to be a major sticking point for investors. And patent trolls are reaping billions in unearned revenues as the courts decide their claims.

"The Patent Office does a terrible job of finding and considering real-world evidence when reviewing patents," said Nazer. "In fact, it seems to operate in an alternative universe where patents themselves provide the only evidence of the state of the art in software. The prosecution that led to the '842 Patent is a stark illustration of this." ®

Updated to add

IBM has promised it won't enforce the patent, essentially making it a defensive application. Of course, if the IT giant sells off the patent, now nestled in its massive intellectual property vault, whoever buys it could use it to extract money out of software developers. And, of course, Big Blue could change its mind.

"We hope that IBM files an official disclaimer of its patent so that the public has certainty regarding this promise," the EFF noted.

PS: Google has just patented a baseball cap with a camera on it, sorta like Google Glass.

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