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Automating Invention is Robert Plotkin's blog on the impact of computer-automated inventing on the future of invention and patent law.

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June 28, 2006

What is "obvious" is obviously not obvious

One criticism that has long been leveled against software patents is that such patents are often granted on "trivial" inventions, i.e., inventions that are only a trifle different from existing technology. (Look here for one such argument.) The "nonobviousness" requirement of patent law is intended to prevent "trivial" patents from being granted. (For an article on the difficulty applying the nonobviousness standard to software, look here.)

The U.S. Supreme Court has just granted review in a case (KSR v. Teleflex) that will re-examine how the "nonobviousness" standard should be applied in patent cases. Although the case does not directly involve a software patent, a ruling that makes obviousness easier to prove could make "trivial" software patents more difficult to obtain. Stay tuned for further developments.

Posted by Robert at 10:17 AM | Comments (0)
category: Software Patents

June 22, 2006

U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Rule on Metabolite Case

The case of LabCorp v. Metabolite had the potential to clarify and either expand or contract the reach of patent law. In layperson's terms, the case involved a patent on a method for detecting a vitamin B deficiency in a person by: (1) analyzing the person's blood to determine whether the person has an elevated level of a certain amino acid; and (2) "correlating" the elevated level with the vitamin B deficiency. The claim was written and interpreted so broadly that it could cover a doctor reading the blood test results and performing the "correlating" step of the process in his or her mind. Imagine a doctor reading the blood test results and thinking, "Aha! These results indicate a vitamin B deficiency."

The case was being closely watched because it raised the question whether a patent could cover a method that is performed at least partially by a human mind. But it had even broader implications for the patentability of medical techniques, software, business methods, and more

I'm referring to the case in the past tense because the U.S. Supreme Court has dismissed the appeal of LabCorp v. Metabolite as being improvidently granted. For non-lawyers, this means that the Court at first decided to review the case, but then changed its mind, deciding that it had been wrong to consider making a decision in the first place. The result is that the patent still stands -- at least for now -- and that the law remains unchanged, and as murky as ever at the edges.

Posted by Robert at 3:37 PM | Comments (0)
category: Software Patents

June 11, 2006

Yet Another Kind of Sourcing

Arnold Brown, in an article in the July-August 2006 issue of The Futurist, uses the term "othersourcing" to refer to "the increasing ability to have work done not only off-site and by other entities . . . but by nonhumans," particularly robots. He provides various examples of ways in which software, robots, and other machines are being used to perform tasks that were once thought to require creativity and therefore to be the exclusive province of humans.

Posted by Robert at 3:24 PM | Comments (0)
category: Design & Engineering | Work

June 6, 2006

Inventing by and for the Masses

We've all heard of "outsourcing," "insourcing," "offshoring," "competitive sourcing," and "near-shoring." Now Wired is reporting on "The Rise of Crowdsourcing" -- the use of average people and their networked computers to create content, solve problems, and invent. The article is well worth a read.

Most relevant to this blog is the example of InnoCentive which, according to its web site, "is an exciting web-based community matching top scientists to relevant R&D challenges facing leading companies from around the globe. We provide a powerful online forum enabling major companies to reward scientific innovation through financial incentives." In other words, if a company has a technical problem that its own engineers can't crack, the company can post the problem on Innocentive's web site and award a prize to anyone -- from anywhere in the world -- who can solve it. It's bounty hunting for inventions, at $10,000-$100,000 a pop.

The Wired article goes into some detail on a particular inventor, Ed Melcarek, who has solved several problems posted on InnoCentive from the comfort of his one-bedroom aparatment in Barrie, Ontario. Why hire a team of high-priced engineers to solve a problem without any guarantee of success when you can farm out the work to garage inventors around tthe world and only pay on cash on delivery?

In the context of open source software, Eric Raymond said, "with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." Perhaps now we can say the same thing about inventions.

Posted by Robert at 10:45 AM | Comments (0)
category: Design & Engineering | Work