Home > US News, USA > IBM gets a patent on “out-of-office” e-mail messages—in 2017

IBM gets a patent on “out-of-office” e-mail messages—in 2017

The US Patent Office sees no history, hears no history—unless it’s in patents.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is bringing light to what it calls a “stupefyingly mundane” patent on e-mail technology, given not to a patent troll hiding in a small office but to one of the world’s largest technology corporations.

IBM lawyers wrangled with the US Patent and Trademark Office for years over their bizarre and alarming alternative history, in which IBM invented out-of-office e-mail—in 2010. US Patent No. 9,547,842, “Out-of-office electronic mail messaging system” was filed in 2010 and granted about six weeks ago.

The “invention” represented in the ‘842 patent is starkly at odds with the real history of technology, accessible in this case via a basic Google search. EFF lawyer Daniel Nazer, who wrote about the ‘842 patent in this month’s “Stupid Patent of the Month” blog post, points to an article on a Microsoft publicity page that talks about quirky out-of-office e-mail culture dating back to the 1980s, when Microsoft marketed its Xenix e-mail system (the predecessor to today’s Exchange.)

IBM offers one feature that’s even arguably not decades old: the ability to notify those writing to the out-of-office user some days before the set vacation dates begin. This feature, similar to “sending a postcard, not from a vacation, but to let someone know you will go on a vacation,” is a “trivial change to existing systems,” Nazer points out. But patent lawyers have long been able to add trivial features to well-known technology in order to get software patent grants.

Nazer goes on to identify some major mistakes made during the examination process. The examiner never considered whether the software claims were eligible after the Supreme Court’s Alice v. CLS Bank decision, which came in 2014, and in Nazer’s view, the office “did an abysmal job” of looking at the prior art.

“[T]he examiner considered only patents and patent applications,” notes Nazer. The office “never considered any of the many, many, existing real-world systems that pre-dated IBM’s application.”

Today, IBM is one of the companies pushing Congress to roll back Alice and allow more types of software patents. “If they succeed, perhaps IBM can finally get a patent on shorter meetings,” writes Nazer, referring to an actual IBM patent application that was rejected as overly abstract.

Update 3:53 pm: Asked about EFF’s criticisms of the patent, an IBM spokesperson said that “IBM has decided to dedicate the patent to the public.” The company notified USPTO today that it will forego its rights to the patent.

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