Joe Lavin

August 2, 2005

Putting Titles on Humor Columns? That Was My Idea

As many of you know, there are thousands of stupid patents rewarded each year. The US Patent Office will generally offer patents on just about anything -- you know, for the right price and all. Case in point: The New York Times reports that Microsoft has recently applied for a patent on a "system and method for creating a note relating to a phone call." Now, you would probably assume that systems for creating notes about phone calls go back all the way to the days of Alexander Graham Bell -- ("While you were out ... Watson called.") -- but you would be wrong. That was Microsoft's idea last month.

I just hope they're not trying to patent the system of writing the note down on a little yellow stickie and then losing the stickie and then avoiding the person who called for the next six months since you can't remember exactly what it is you were supposed to do for them. Because that one's all mine.

As if that's not enough, Microsoft has also filed a patent application for the smiley face. Yes, the loveable smiley emoticon could soon belong to the not-so-loveable Bill Gates. The patent is for, "selecting pixels to be used as an emoticon; assigning a character sequence to the pixels; and transmitting the character sequence to a destination to allow for reconstruction of the pixels at the destination." Actually, that last part makes it sound like they are also patenting the process of beaming somebody up to the Starship Enterprise, so we had better watch out.

To be fair, this is more about automatically changing text like :) into some stupid-looking animated face rather than just patenting the emoticon itself. Still, it all seems part of some sinister plot to fight off the competitors to MSN Messenger. You like your little emoticons, then you'll just have to use Messenger, won't you? It'll be a dark day indeed when we won't be able to make goofy little emoticons without the help of Microsoft. Can chat acronyms be far behind? Soon, we may be saying ttfn to brb, cul8er, and rotfl.

Microsoft is not alone, of course. Many others own ridiculous patents too. A few years ago, attempted to patent the technology behind one-click ordering, which gave me the idea to patent the thought, "Damnit, I didn't mean to click on that. What the hell did I just buy?"

Amazon has also patented the use of cookies on a web site. I'm thinking of getting a patent on that thing where you get all concerned about security and disable all your cookies only to realize fifteen minutes later that just about everything useful you do online requires cookies, so you turn them back on again and just hope that nobody does anything bad to you. I think it could be a real winner.

As bad as Amazon is, Microsoft seems to be including stupid patents in their entire business model. A year ago last week, Bill Gates announced plans for Microsoft to increase its number of annual patent applications from 2,000 to 3,000, which is sort of ironic for a company that built its success around the copying of other people's ideas. Can you actually patent the act of looking over somebody's shoulder?

Among the other patents that Microsoft now owns are ones for "adding and removing white space from a document," for tabbing through links on a web page, for "transporting objects between a client and a server," and finally an "apparatus for scooping and sifting cat litter." Oh, sorry, that last one actually belongs to Steven Tsengas and Judith Casstevens of Ohio and not Microsoft. My bad.

While they're at it, I don't know why Microsoft just doesn't patent that stupid paper clip as well. They may get grief for all their other patents, but the Microsoft paper clip is one thing no one else in the world would ever want to patent. That one's all yours, Bill.

©2005 Joe Lavin

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