U.S. Patent 6,329,919 covers "an apparatus, system and method for providing reservations for restroom use." In 2001 the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) deemed IBM's electronic toilet queue worthy of a patent, thus fulfilling the office's constitutional edict to "promote the progress of science and useful arts." You don't have to be a legal scholar to wonder whether IBM deserved to be given exclusive rights for nearly 20 years to stop others from determining who gets to go next. The IBM restroom patent joined Amazon.com's patent on one-click ordering and countless lesser-known issuances from the PTO as members of the infamous subclass of intellectual property known as business-method patents.
A 1998 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, State Street v. Signature Financial Group, opened the floodgates by throwing out a long-standing judicial rule against business-method patents and giving a boost to the gold-rush environment of the Internet boom--a dot-com company that sells dog food on the Web might now decide to apply for a patent on its method of doing business. After State Street, the number of applications for class 705 patents (patents on business-related data-processing methods and technologies) soared from 1,340 in the 1998 federal fiscal year to a peak of 8,700 in fiscal 2001. Ascertaining what a business-method patent is remains part of the problem. Among the difficulties: not all business-method patents fit into class 705, and some of them predate the State Street decision.
This article was originally published with the title Take a Number.