There’s a good chance you’ve heard of out-of-office replies.
The email feature, which sends an automated response to let people know you are not around, has been a staple of office life for decades. Yet that didn’t stop the Patent Office from awarding IBM U.S. Patent 9547842, titled “out-of-office electronic mail messaging system”— in January 2017!
The government’s decision to issue a new patent for what seems to be a long-familiar invention raised eyebrows, including at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which promptly dubbed it “Stupid Patent of the Month.” The “stupid” patent project is funded by entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who started it to draw attention to what he sees as lax standards at the U.S. Patent Office.
As the EFF argues, U.S. Patent 9537842, for which IBM applied in 2010, relates to obvious concepts and should never have been issued in the first place (my emphasis):
The ’842 Patent describes technology that would have been stupefyingly mundane to a 2010 reader. A user inputs “availability data” such as a “start date, an end date and at least one availability indicator message.” The system then uses this data to send out-of-office messages. The only arguably new feature it claims is automatically notifying correspondents a few days before a vacation so that they can prepare in advance for a coworker’s absence. From a technological perspective, this is a trivial change to existing systems. Indeed, it is like asking for a patent on the idea of sending a postcard, not from a vacation, but to let someone know you will go on a vacation.
In a blog post, the EFF also scolds the Patent Office for failing to review so-called prior art to see if the out-of-office tool technology by IBM was obvious or existed already, and for failing to take account of a major Supreme Court decision that says many forms of software are ineligible for patent protection.
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As for IBM, the company has responded to the criticism by disavowing the invention, telling the tech website Ars Technica, “IBM has decided to dedicate the patent to the public.” The company, which every year earns more patents than anyone else, also filed a public notice with the Patent Office saying it entirely disclaimed the 9537842 patent.
IBM did not immediately respond to a Fortune request for further comment.
The controversy over the out-of-office patent comes amid ongoing scrutiny of the U.S. patent system, which critics say issues too many flimsy patents. Last month, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Ut) included patent reform as part of his proposed “Innovation Agenda” for the technology sector. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is set to hear an important patent venue case later this month.