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Patents and Operations Research

There is an article today in the New York Times on the fight the CEO of Audible (one of my favorite companies: listening to a book read by a skilled reader is a completely different experience than reading a book) is having against companies who claim Audible is infringing on a patent. These “patent trolls” offer to license for an amount somewhat less than the cost of litigating.

Of course, this is a well known and well publicized activity. While it is hard to argue for the worst aspects of trolling, patents are a key aspect to technological advance (open-source and open-development notwithstanding). Without patents, inventors lack incentive to take the risks inherent in research.

But the US patent office’s decision to patent processes has led to an incredible amount of abuse of this process. While patents are only supposed to be given for “nonobvious” advances, patent examiners seem to have an unbelievable inability to see the obvious given some of the processes deemed nonobvious. And Operations Research gets involved here. The United States Treasury and Patent Office has a wonderful system for searching patents. Searching (in “quick search”) on operations research gives 493 hits including one of those silly process patents for:

“Systems and methods wherein a buyer purchases a product at a first price and physically acquires the product at a location associated with a merchant that offers the product for sale at a second price”

(Patent 7,107,228. Dated September 12, 2006). Reading through this can lead to nothing but anger over a broken patent system. People can get a patent for this?? It appears that the only “operations research” aspect is a reference to one of our field’s journals, but I am ashamed to have those words appear in a patent such as this.

The patent database is a great place to spend a few hours (if you can get past some of the office’s nutty decisions). Searching on “integer programming” gives 244 patents, some of which look to be very clever uses of integer programming.

It might be argued that our field started this nonsense with AT&T’s ill-conceived patent on “Karmarkar’s algorithm” (patent 4,744,026 if you want to look it up on the system). At the time, AT&T had to surround this algorithm with a computer but they worked hard to “own” this algorithm, ignoring significant prior art. I don’t think AT&T made very much (if anything) out of this, but it appears to have encouraged a lot of others to try to stretch the patent process … past its limits.

Updated September 18

Diego Olivier Fernandez Pons wrote regarding patent 5,667,438. Entitled “Method of constructing crossword puzzles by computer”, it reads in part:

A software crossword puzzle design tool is provided. It provides a menu-driven user interface with various editing functions allowing the user to specify details of the crossword puzzle desired, such as the size, pattern, and inclusion of certain theme words. The unsolved puzzle is constructed automatically by a computer assigning letters to cells one cell at a time. After each assignment, the affected wordslots are compared to a lexicon of words to determine what letters of the alphabet may potentially be assigned to each of the remaining unassigned cells. If any unassigned cell becomes unassignable, some assignments must be reversed and others tried. Special data structures for the lexicon and fast methods of accessing the lexicon are disclosed. Clues can be assigned to the puzzle automatically or manually, and then the unsolved puzzle can be printed.

Wonderful: a patent on backtrack search.

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