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10/14/2002
12:12 PM
Stephanie Stahl
Stephanie Stahl
Commentary
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Editor's Note: Philosophy Part II, And Brain Spillage

Those who read my column a few weeks ago heard my tale of the philosophical cabbie questioning the merits of real-time business. Well, I have to share another story I heard during my travels last week from the elderly gentleman who sat next to me on an airplane. It's important, he said to someone I presumed to be his grandson, to have an open mind--about politics, art, music, literature, girls, whatever. "Having an open mind will keep your brain active, it will keep you smart, it will make you compassionate, it will help you understand and reason with others." That's good advice, I thought. But it gets better. He warned: "But don't open it up so much that your brain spills out!"

I could hardly resist bursting out laughing. Even he was chuckling at his own words. But he was quite serious at the same time. So, here I am, trying my best to have an open mind about patent protection for business methods. People deserve to patent their great ideas, right? Patents, after all, are meant to protect inventions and help the free market, right? And certainly it's only fair for others to get permission or pay a fee to use those ideas, right?

But I'm stopping well short of brain spillage when it comes to details exposed in this week's cover story by senior executive editor John Soat. The folks from an outfit called PanIP are on a roll with suing small company after small company over their use of E-commerce--the very method that allows even the smallest mom-and-pop shops to sell their wares to the rest of the world over the Internet.

In the words of many of the defendants in these cases, this is nothing more than "legalized extortion." And whether you feel that strongly or not, the issue highlights the ongoing contention over the Patent Office's decisions on what kinds of business methods should get patents. (For perspective on a patent for the computerized process of automating the paperwork involved in international commerce, see "Here's One That's Just Patently Absurd," p. 88, Oct. 7.) Is the Patent Office, which is celebrating its bicentennial this year, adequately equipped to evaluate these kinds of things? (It has 3,500 people who examine patents. Last year, 187,000 were granted. And this doesn't take into account how many patents were examined.)

Is something out of whack here? Or am I just being too closed-minded?

Stephanie Stahl
Editor
sstahl@cmp.com

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