Business Process Patents

BUSINESS PROCESS PATENTS….I’ve never been a fan of “business process” patents, an idea that strikes me as open to laughable levels of abuse, and it looks like eBay is the latest victim of these things ? to the tune of $35 million:

The victor in the case is Thomas Woolston, a 39-year-old electrical engineer in Great Falls, Va. An avid collector of baseball cards, Woolston said he got the idea to create a virtual marketplace during the Major League Baseball player strike in 1994. He envisioned an online swap meet where collectors could gather to securely buy and sell baseball cards.

….Among Woolston’s patents are one for a system for selling items at a fixed price and for a technology that lets buyers compare prices from multiple online sellers.

The jury found that EBay’s “Buy It Now” option, which lets people purchase items outright without having to go through the auction process, violates the first patent, and that EBay subsidiary Half.com infringes the second patent by simultaneously displaying the prices of several Web merchants, said Woolston’s attorney, Scott L. Robertson of Hunton & Williams in Washington.

Patents are supposed to require some kind of “nonobvious” innovation, and it’s hard for me to see how most business process patents meet this test. A “system for selling items at a fixed price”? Give me a break. And displaying several prices at once so you can see who has the lowest price? Frankly, it’s hard to imagine an innovation that’s more obvious.

Amazon is the most famous abuser of this kind of patent, of course. Their “one click” payment system, which amounted to nothing more than collecting all your personal data and allowing you to buy a book with one click, was declared patentable several years ago. This is a clever innovation?

I would very much like to see Congress get involved in this somehow. I don’t know enough about the subject to suggest what they should do, but dotcommers ? disappointed that online pet food and home grocery delivery weren’t stunningly innovative business models after all ? should not be allowed to turn around and get government protection to cash in on every obvious permutation of displaying data on a screen and clicking a mouse button. It’s time for them to go back to working for a living.

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