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US Patent Office says Y2K Dickens of a thing

Quick-and-dirty fix called into question

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The ghost of Christmas future rattled its chains last week as the US Patent Office took action towards revoking a questionable software patent amid a squall of contention. US Patents Commissioner Todd Dickinson ordered the re-examination of a patent held by Bruce Dickens for a technique known as "windowing", which we are told is a quick-and-dirty fix for Y2K problems.

The technique reportedly guesses, and reasonably accurately, whether a date refers to the twentieth or twenty-first century. Inventor Dickens bought the patent from his employer, McDonnell Douglas, which apparently had no use for it. Both he and the company obviously believe that the technique is original, otherwise they shouldn't have bothered to register it, though some "experts" beg to differ. Many believe there is heaps of prior art along the same lines, and Dickens is simply mistaken when he claims to be the original inventor.

Meanwhile, Dickens is so confident in the originality and profit-making potential of his little trick that he formed a company, Dickens2000, which has been turning out letters to large companies seeking first-year royalty payments of a modest $25,000 for every $1 billion of annual revenue.

Companies declining to sign up until after 1 January will face the eye-popping rate of $2.5 million for every $1 billion in revenue, so getting in early is certainly a smooth move for any corporate CFO. Dickens' attorney said his client has already signed up a few licensees whom he declined to name, probably in order to spare them the embarrassment of being known to give away their shareholders' money so easily.

The case is reminiscent of Reiffin v. Microsoft, where a litigant, Martin Reiffin, claims to have invented the technique of multithreading numerous tasks within an application. Microsoft contends that prior art exists; Reiffin begs to differ, and a US federal appellate court will make the call early in the coming year.

The problem here is that a claim of prior art can be used to challenge any one's patent on any thing. This is coupled with the fact that the US Patent Office is woefully ill prepared to locate prior art in most software applications. Thus it is entirely likely that prior art can and will be discovered in hundreds of existing software patents, which provides great incentives for numerous comers to challenge them in the future, and yields, if nothing else, a glorious windfall for lawyers.

It is no wonder, then, that Congress has caught scent of the brewing difficulties, and graciously volunteered its services by way of legislation to ease everyone's suffering.

Some preliminary soundings are expected in the coming year, which are certain to continue in the next, after the elections when a "new" House and Senate will convene. Then the generous, palliatory effects of months, if not years, of tortured logic and oratorical sleight-of-hand on the House and Senate floor will be felt by all concerned - though just how grateful they will be, we cannot say as yet. ®

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