October 11, 2002 2:28 PM PDT

IBM flushes restroom patent

IBM has quietly eliminated a patent it received on a method for determining who gets to use the bathroom next.

The computing giant received a patent for a "system and method for providing reservations for restroom use" in December. But the company later decided to renounce all of its patent claims after a petition was made against it, according to documents released this week by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.

IBM spokesman Chris Andrews acknowledged that the company withdrew the patent.

"We dedicated that patent to the public so that we could continue focusing on our high-quality patent portfolio," Andrews said. He declined to give further explanation about why IBM decided to renounce it--or why it filed for the patent in the first place.

IBM's decision to renounce the patent came after the petition and after patent office Director James Rogan ordered a re-examination of the patent, said office spokeswoman Ruth Nyblod. She did not know whether the office would have cancelled the patent without IBM's request.

"IBM disclaimed it, so we cancelled the claims in the patent," she said.

The patent system has seen its reputation sullied in recent years. Critics have charged that too many patents don't pass the smell test because they cover "obvious" inventions that can't be patented under U.S. law. Earlier this year, for instance, the office was criticized for issuing a patent for a method of swinging sideways on a swing.

Technology patents, specifically those covering software and business methods, have drawn some of the most criticism and have been witness to some of the most high-profile legal contests. A patent suit against eBay, for example, could force it to change its successful auction system. Earlier this year, Amazon.com settled a long-running patent dispute against Barnesandnoble.com over Amazon's 1-Click checkout system.

Originally filed in August 2000, IBM's restroom reservation patent describes a system that would determine who is next in line for using the facilities on an airplane, passenger train or boat. As envisioned in the patent, the system would be run by a computer that would assign customers a number based on a first-come, first-served basis. The system would give customers an estimate of their waiting time to use the restroom and would notify them when the restroom was available and allow them to cancel their reservations.

"Because of the shortage of restrooms on board, it is often necessary for passengers (on an airplane) to stand for quite sometime in the aisles while queuing to use the restroom," IBM said in a description of the patent, No. 6,329,919. "Standing in the aisle of a moving aircraft creates safety hazard and inconveniences for both the passenger and other people on board. Likewise, a passenger may lose a great deal of his valuable time or miss a significant portion of an entertainment program because of waiting to use a restroom.

"A need therefore exists for an apparatus, system, and method for providing reservations for restroom use in places such as on an airplane, a passenger train or boat where safety concerns exist."

But the need for a patent on this method of restroom reservations was questioned soon after the patent was issued. In February, a petition was filed on it, and the patent office was asked to re-examine it, according to patent office records. Later that month, IBM decided to renounce the patents, according to the records.

Neither IBM's Andrews nor the patent office's Nyblod knew who issued the petition or why.

But Nyblod said that it's relatively rare for the patent office to re-examine patents it has issued. The office granted 187,882 patents in 2001 but received just 296 requests to re-examine individual patents, she said.

The patent office probably should have disposed of the patent application on the restroom reservation system instead of granting it, said Carl Oppedahl, a patent attorney with Dillon, Colo.-based Oppedahl & Larson.

"We have kept track of who gets to use the bathroom next for a long time in our society," Oppedahl said. "By disclaiming it, IBM now relieves the general public of wondering whether they would have been a target of this patent."

But just because the patent office granted this and other questionable patents doesn't mean the system is broken, he said. In fact, the patent office has taken steps to improve the way it issues patents in recent years, he said.

The office now generally publishes patent applications 18 months after they are filed. By publishing applications before they are granted patents, the office has opened up the process, allowing people to submit documentation that challenges claims made by a patent applicant.

Unfortunately, in this case, that process didn't go into effect until after IBM filed for its restroom patent, Oppedahl said.

"Maybe this patent wouldn't have been issued if the 18-month procedure had been in effect back when this was filed," he said.

For nine years running, IBM has been the leading recipient of patents from the U.S. patent office. The company received 3,411 patents last year. Its patent portfolio brought in $1.5 billion in revenue in 2001, Andrews said.

Andrews declined to say how many patents the company files for each year or the process the company uses to determine what it will patent. Andrews said he did not know how many patents the company renounces each year.

 

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