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Cleanliness starts at home

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Comment Microsoft's chief lawyer has said the US Patent Office needs to be clean up its act - forgetting that cleanliness starts at home.

The US Patent Office is being deluged by a flood of trivial tech patents, Brad Smith told a right-wing think tank this week. Smith presented a four-point remedy, aimed at raising the quality and lowering the quantity of tech patents; minimizing litigation, "harmonizing" international patent treaties - along US lines - and lowering the bar for smaller inventors to file more easily.

The fourth suggestion is a public relations sop. For some reason, the small entrepreneur still holds a special place in the mythology of a nation dominated by Wal-Mart, Starbucks and Microsoft itself. But at least one hopes Smith is serious.

On late night cable TV, you can see ads by chancey law firms that feature out-of-work actors who rue the fact that "I'd thought of that years ago!". The ads conclude by urging people with "bright ideas" to come forth and file their inventions. Perhaps Microsoft can bring its own production values to bear on these low-budget ads.

A sample TV spot might feature a veteran programmer browsing through a new programming language specification. He comes across an particularly elegant expression, and his brow furrows. It's the ISNOT operator, and he thinks "I thought of that years ago. Why didn't I patent it?" The camera pans to the floor where a copy of Business Week features a remarkably youthful looking chap frowning, over the headline "BOOLEAN BILLIONAIRE HAS WORLD AT HIS FEET". It's the ISNOT man.

Or a man in a suit could be midway through a PowerPoint™ presentation of his next quarter's sales forecasts, when a member of the audience, confused by the chart, asks a question. A light bulb appears over the presenter's head. He strides confidently over to the screen and labels the vertical scale "the y axis".

Or picture a group of start-up entreprenuers. They're staring at an eviction notice, and they've maxed out their credit cards: the end is surely near. Suddenly one leaps on the table.

"I've got it!" he shouts. "An effective electronic exchange system for satisfying an offer by a purchaser with a quote from a supplier has eluded those skilled in the art!" Cut to the future, to the Davos Forum, where over apres ski drinks Nelson Mandela and Bono sidle up to our entrepreneurs, demanding to know how they came up with such a brilliantly simple idea.

(The last quote, by the way, is a lifted directly from a Microsoft Expedia patent, granted only last November).

Each TV advertisement ends with the come on: "Make millions: No Patent Experience Necessary!"

Microsoft has every reason to be wary of submarine patents: it was stung for over $500 million by a one man company that patented applets in web pages, Eolas. But if chief attorney Smith is serious about ending the stream of fatuous patents, he need look no further than his own legal team. ®

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