October 15, 2002 4:58 PM PDT

Are patent methods patently absurd?

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The head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office acknowledged on Tuesday that many business method patents had been wrongfully awarded in the past, but predicted a more careful approach in the future.

"We were granting 65 or 70 percent of these things," patent office chief James Rogan said at an event at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Now the rejection rate is around 65 or 70 percent."

Rogan, who took the job last December, said he's trying to revamp a massive bureaucracy of about 3,400 examiners who review 350,000 to 375,000 patent applications each year and have a backlog of about 430,000 patents. "We want to move away from the status quo," he said. "It is hurting technology. It is hurting our economy."

In the last few years, the patent office has suffered from increasing criticism directed at its low, and sometimes apparently nonexistent, standards for granting patents. Because the patent office's budget is linked to application fees, the more patents it approves, the more people are encouraged to apply--and the more money it gets.

The patent office has granted patents for side-to-side swinging on a swing set and for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without a crust.

Technology patents, especially 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.

"The complaints you've heard about business method patents--are they before or are they now?" Rogan said, suggesting that many examples of problematic patents lie in the past.

Earlier this year, Amazon.com settled a long-running patent dispute against Barnesandnoble.com over Amazon's one-click checkout system. IBM recently said it would abandon rights to a patent it received for a "system and method for providing reservations for restroom use."

Another change that's under way comes in a Justice Department reauthorization bill, expected to be signed by President Bush in the next month, which would make it easier to challenge patents of dubious legitimacy.

 

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