Saturday, September 24, 2005

Oracle software patent: The little man falls!

The UK Patent Office has ruled on the patentability of application number GB 2385686 filed by software giant Oracle. This patent application is for a system that translates a language like SGML into markup language like HTML. The application was denied by the examiner, who had doubts about whether the invention was novel and involved an inventive step. This is of course accurate because there have been programs that do this for ages. The applicants did claim that theirs was better, but should patents be awarded for any program that does something slightly better than previous ones?

Nevertheless, the important part of the case was that the examiner did not believe that the application met the patentability requirements set out in the law and in recent cases. Particularly, the recent case of CFPH Application was particularly enlightening in attempting to set out a test for patentability of software in the UK. One of the hidden gems of the ruling is the "little man test". This test states that the software will be patentable if it fulfills all other patent requirements, but also if it can be performed by a little man inside the computer. As useful as this test is, it is not without faults, particularly in this case. As the Comptroller stated:
Not only is there no artifact or industrial process being controlled, but the application makes it clear that the purpose of the invention is to convert a document from one format to another in a few minutes without requiring manual input from a user, where previously it would have taken days— with or without the assistance of a computer.
Well said. The patent application was struck down, but I'm afraid that we may see this one come back in court. Will the little man get his day in court?

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