Monday, June 09, 2008

More patent insanity: Google's virtual bookshelf

I've only read a few patents in my time, and they are very strange documents. Stranger even because they have a real effect on the world.

I don't know if there is a specific language and style of patents, but the ones that I have read are amazingly vague. That is especially frightening given that patents describe technologies -- things you can create in some 'real world' fashion. The latest patent to make it through the magical and mysterious process at the Patent Office that turns it from "nutty idea" to "take it to court" is the Google patent called "Computer-implemented interactive, virtual bookshelf system and method."

"A computer-implemented method and system for realizing an interactive, virtual bookshelf representing physical books and digitally stored books of the user. Using a search query, the Web is searched using search metadata to identify a desired book. Library metadata corresponding to the physical books and digitally stored books of the user is then searched using the search metadata to determine whether the book is present in the virtual online bookshelf. Results indicative of whether the desired book is present on the virtual on-line bookshelf can be displayed."
That's the abstract, but even reading the details and looking at the diagrams there are many things that are not clear. Here's one flow:

  • Search term or query of search data and/or search metadata
  • Search hits metadata of desired books

OK, so far we have exactly what happens in a library catalog (but not what happens using Google Book Search, which is based on actual text).

  • Filter or compare to library/metadata of selected virtual bookshelf

  • If found in virtual bookshelf, "User acquires physical or digitally-stored copy of desired book from physical bookshelf of selected virtual bookshelf."

Now this last one is just nonsense. There's something called Physical Bookshelf that somehow the user accesses from an Internet search. Does this mean that the user gets a call number and goes to the shelf? And in the diagrams, the Physical Bookshelf contains a "Memory of Digitally Stored Books." So this must be magic, because I don't know of any physical bookshelves with memory. Well, at least none outside of L-Space.

The last thing that happens in this very odd flow is that if one does not find the book in the virtual book shelf, the question is put:

Acquire physical or digitally stored copy of desired book?

If the answer to that is yes, then the user acquires metadata of the desired book, which is then compared to the virtual bookshelf. The same virtual bookshelf where the item wasn't found.

Since we know that patents tend to be interpreted very broadly, this patent could be seen to cover any search of metadata that results in finding books that can be either digital or physical. That is essentially every library catalog in the nation, and beyond. And indeed what is a library catalog but a "virtual bookshelf"? The one caveat is that it is the Web that is searched, not a library database. But if we go forward with our ideas to have library metadata searchable over the Web, then ...

Patents today are rarely used by their inventors to create actual products. Instead they are used to bludgeon competitors who are also working in the same approximate service space. The patents are ends in themselves and are designed to prevent invention. Quite honestly, if something isn't done about this, we'll find ourselves completely unable to innovate.

At this point I should come up with some clever, satirical example of outrageous patents, but it's really impossible to one-up reality in this particular area.

For a more positive view of the patent, see SEO by the Sea blog post, and a post about that post by Lorcan Dempsey.


Kevin said...

I've emailed the EFF to suggest this for their "patent busting" project:

Kevin said...

I forgot to report back on this blog to say that EFF said they're focusing their limited resources on the five remaining patents on their "Top Ten Most Wanted" but are considering whether to add others to the list.