IBM owns out of hours emails

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is furious that IBM has managed to score a patent on out of hours emails.

The EFF said it is bringing light to what it calls a “stupefyingly mundane” patent on e-mail technology which turns Biggish Blue into a spectacular troll.

For years IBM lawyers has argued with the US Patent and Trademark Office over a bizarre and alarming alternative history, in which IBM invented out of office e-mail—in 2010.

US Patent No. 9,547,842, “Out-of-office electronic mail messaging system” was filed in 2010 and granted about six weeks ago.

EFF lawyer Daniel Nazer described the case as the “Stupid Patent of the Month” blog post and cites a Microsoft publicity page that talks about quirky out of office e-mail culture dating back to the 1980s, when Microsoft marketed its Xenix e-mail system.

To be fair an IBM spokesperson said that “IBM has decided to dedicate the patent to the public”. The company notified USPTO today that it will forego its rights to the patent.

But the patent should never have been awarded.

IBM offers one feature that’s even arguably not decades old –  the ability to notify those writing to the out of office user some days before the set vacation dates begin.

It is a  feature, similar to “sending a postcard, not from a vacation, but to let someone know you will go on a vacation,” is a “trivial change to existing systems,” Nazer points out.

Nazer said that here were some major mistakes made during the examination process. The examiner never considered whether the software claims were eligible after the Supreme Court’s Alice v. CLS Bank decision, which came in 2014, and in Nazer’s view, the office “did an abysmal job” of looking at the prior art.

Nazer said the office “never considered any of the many, many, existing real-world systems that pre-dated IBM’s application”.

Needless to say, IBM is not one of those companies who likes the Alice judgement much.  It is lobbying Congress to roll back Alice and allow more types of software patents.

Rather than making trolls go away, it will mean that even more bizarre ones could get the nod by the Patent Office. After all IBM once applied to patent shorter meetings, it did not get anywhere with it, but it is the sort of thing it wants to be paid for.