My recent interest in software patents have made me an observer of the U.S. patent system. You know that there is a problem when somebody can patent DVD rental and sue its competitors. This is what happens in the case of popular web-only DVD rental service Netflix, which has sued Blockbuster over one of its patents protecting their rental service. Netflix owns U.S. patent 7,024,381 , which protects an “Approach for renting items to customers”. The abstract reads:

According to a computer-implemented approach for renting items to customers, customers specify what items to rent using item selection criteria separate from deciding when to receive the specified items. According to the approach, customers provide item selection criteria to a provider provides the items indicated by the item selection criteria to customer over a delivery channel. The provider may be either centralized or distributed depending upon the requirements of a particular application. A “Max Out” approach allows up to a specified number of items to be rented simultaneously to customers. A “Max Turns” approach allows up to a specified number of item exchanges to occur during a specified period of time. The “Max Out” and “Max Turns” approaches may be used together or separately with a variety of subscription methodologies.

Netflix also owns patent 6,966,484, for “Mailing and response envelope”. I kid you not. The abstract reads:

A mailing and response envelope for conveying an item from a sender to a recipient and back is disclosed. The envelope comprises a base panel, a sender address panel, and a recipient address panel. The sender address panel is affixed to the base panel by an adhesive region. The sender address panel and adhesive region define a pocket sized to accept an item. The adhesive region extends laterally on the base panel in an amount selected to ensure that a postal cancellation is not applied to an area overlying the item. The recipient address panel is joined to the base panel by a detachable joint. In this configuration, a fragile item may be conveyed from the sender to the recipient and from the recipient back to the sender without damage to the item.

Has the patent system come to this? It has in the United States. Business method patents are in my opinion the death of the patent system, they protect the minutiae of progress and innovation, and turn the marketplace into a bickering schoolyard of spoiled kids shouting “this is mine” and “I saw it first”. The purpose of the patent system is to encourage innovation. Patents like the one mentioned above do anything but that. You can get an idea for adding a minor twist to something that already exists, and claim that you are a real innovator.

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