[Dave Birch] Now, I’m more than happy to admit that I don’t really understand patents. So there’s a shout going out from this blog for someone who does to provide comment on a story that a couple of journalists enquired about recently. The U.S. Patent Office — yes, the people who allowed someone to patent Archimedes theory (warning: link not suitable for family audiences) — have granted Google a patent on payment by text message. What strikes a mere normal businessperson such as myself as odd is not only that payment-by-text-message systems already exist and are widely used by people all around the world, but that they were in commercial operation for years before the patent was filed in February 2006. How does this work? How can you be granted a patent on something that already exists?

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Our friends at Payments News pointed me in the right direction and I downloaded a PDF of the patent. Having read it, it seems to be to indistinguishable for every other text-payment-instruction-to-server system out there. Does the fact that it’s a text message — as opposed to e-mail, fax or carrier pigeon — actually have any relevance? I mean — and I’m not picking on Google here — there’s no actual invention contained in the patent at all. People have been sending messages to banks to instruct a payment since time immemorial: the fact that they now might do it slowly one thumb-click at time doesn’t seem terribly relevant to me, which is how come I’m wondering how these patents get granted. I need to talk to a lawyer to try and understand this better, before I head off to file my patent on “the exchange of goods and/or services for money”.

This week’s Economist Technology Quarterly has a relevant article about improving the patent system by opening it up to public scrutiny. The idea is that member of the public can bring “prior art” to the attention of the patent examiners and thus cut down on the number of lawsuits that are generated by people patenting things.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]


  1. Google has not been granted a patent, they have only applied for a patent. It will probably take three or four more years before a final decision by the Patent Office, and Google will likely have to narrow their claims significantly in order to get a patent.

  2. Patents are generally drafted by the lawyers, not the inventors. Some of these have a strategy of shooting for the moon, which for software business process patents often works because the USPTO hires engineers with no expertise in software business to approve the patents.
    I can think of so much prior art for this off the top of my head that I suspect few of the claims will be approved, and what does get patented will be useful mainly to harass the naive. But the lawyer and the USPTO patent agent may not find any prior art in the patent database as this is a new field for patents. And they generally don’t look beyond the patent database.
    I wouldn’t waste my time worrying about these kinds of patents unless somebody actually tries to sue you. The success rate for such lawsuits in the software and business area is rather low, and is especially low for patents like this where tons of prior art exists. And even if you did read all these crazy patents there is nothing you can do about them. You can’t fight them and you would be insane to redesign your systems one iota to try to avoid them. And if you’re not aware of them you can’t be sued for triple damages “intentional infringement.”

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