IBM Gets a Patent On ‘Out-of-Office’ Email Messages — In 2017

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued IBM a — what the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls — “stupefyingly mundane” patent on e-mail technology. U.S. Patent No. 9,547,842, “Out-of-office electronic mail messaging system” was filed in 2010 and granted about six weeks ago. Ars Technica reports: 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. 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.”


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