Business & Finance
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10/4/2002
03:42 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Business Technology: Here's One That's Just Patently Absurd

I'm not as young as I used to be, and as I have ripened ("matured" doesn't seem to apply), I've tried to adopt a more-accepting, roll-with-the-punches attitude. Safety pins through the nose, headbanger music, fruity beer, reality TV, ultra-high-volume cell-phone talkers--all these and even more now spark little more than a shrug of the shoulders and a repetition of the line from philosopher and InformationWeek columnist Lou Bertin: "That's why there's chocolate and vanilla." But I do have my limits, and they were crossed last week by the United States Patent Office.

The Patent Office took another bizarre step down the twisted path toward institutionalizing business methods by conferring patent status on the computerized process of automating the paperwork involved in commerce across national borders. So if you used to take your truckload of tomatoes from Seattle to Vancouver and sell it for $500 cash and get a paper receipt, and you now do the same thing except you receive your payment via electronic funds-transfer and your receipt via E-mail, then get in line to pay for the privilege of engaging in international commerce.

Fireman Michael Mullan called from his truck on the way to the Trade Center the morning of the attacks. "He called to tell us, 'I love you. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.' Michael never said goodbye--it wasn't a part of him to think goodbye. he would always say, 'See you later,' or 'Take care.' But that fateful day he said goodbye to his family." His body was found on Oct. 7. Then the Mullan family found out about his last hours. After Michael called home he bowed his head and, with a friend on the rig, prayed. Michael and his crew went to the Marriott Hotel, next to the Trade Center. It had been badly damaged, and later collapsed. They made their way to the upper floors and then were ordered out by their lieutenant. The way was blocked, but they found a path down. Then word came there were two firemen on a higher floor who couldn't find a way down. "Michael's last spoken words," his mother said, "were, 'I'll go back and get them.'"
--Peggy Noonan, "A Heart, A Cross and A Flag," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 6


Here's a line from The Wall Street Journal's story: "Ed Pool, the company's CEO, said he thinks it would be reasonable to charge licensees a fraction of a percentage of every international transaction, because such software would save them money." Hey, Ed, don't be a fool! Why just a fraction of a percentage? Fraction schmaction--charge them 25%! And if they complain, make it 50%! After all, you're not forcing these people to use computers, are you? They have lots of other options--stay local and do business only in their own country, go back to paper, use the telephone, or even get really innovative and brush off the stone tablets and chisels.

But what in the name of global economics could the Patent Office have possibly been thinking? What about E-mail--who invented that computerized process for engaging in international communication? To whom do we start writing the checks for every E-mail message we send across borders? If I'm in Detroit, and I listen on a very hot day to a radio station in Canada that runs an ad for ice cream, and I go out and buy some, do I stick a nickel in an envelope and mail it to Thomas Edison? To RCA? To Ed Pool?

Maybe I'm turning into a sour old curmudgeon who hates change and resists anything new, and perhaps by extension I resent this great innovation by DE Technologies, based in Montreal. Maybe we need as a country to make a list of every single business method and business process ever used, determine who invented each and every one, and then analyze all of them extensively to see which ones "would save them money" and grant patents to all of those. Then we could set up another agency to establish appropriate levels of damages or payments or prizes or kickbacks. But first, we'd have to set up another agency that would measure or estimate or investigate how many times each person or company used those money-saving methods, and if any U.S. citizen who used such processes in the past but has since moved abroad would have to be contacted and if that agency made that contact by computer and sent a dunning notice, then wouldn't that agency have to start paying Ed Pool? But wouldn't that be a conflict of interest? So we'd have to set up another agency...

Well, I must be going. The spike I've stuck through my nose is starting to throb and I need to put on a new headbanger CD on my way to getting another apricot/mango lager.

Bob Evans
Editor in Chief
bevans@cmp.com


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