A Patently Preposterous Patent?

“…be careful what you say in your blogs—blogs can work for you by denying property rights to others, they can work against you by exposing your ideas prematurely or narrowing your time window to apply for a patent, and they can establish a trail of evidence that a litigant can use against you to show a judge that your invention is an obvious extension of prior art.”

So goes the blog entry which has now set the stage for the perfect patent storm. And what diabolical precision! Accenture sure knows a thing or two about recruiting far-sighted people (no wonder Tiger Woods endorses them), for this particular blog entry is that of Dr.Kishore Swaminathan, Accenture’s Chief Scientist, and now it might come back to him. This particular post concludes thus:

“I have an idea that could revolutionize an important area of information technology—but I cannot tell you because I might compromise Accenture’s patent rights.”

The idea which he has referred to, has taken concrete shape as US 7321886 entitled “Rapid Knowledge Transfer among Workers”, and is being dissected and vivisected by techies on blogs the world over. After going through the patent, one gets a feeling that the system, as claimed, sounds pretty huge and elaborate, given the global scale of application for which it is envisaged. The object of the patent is to cater to one specific and, obviously what the patentee considers to be the most important, aspect in the whole gamut of processes which combine to make up the process of outsourcing and here I quote from paragraph 6 of the written description- “knowledge transfer between expert employees of the client and the apprentice employees of the outsourcing agency who will eventually take over the outsourced job function”.

Accordingly, the patent talks of a system and method to enable “rapid knowledge transfer, for example between a plurality of experts and a plurality of apprentices located remotely from the experts”- as quoted from the abstract. There must have been an underlying reason which triggered the search for such a solution. From the written description, it is inferred that the offset in the profits of a client company gained through outsourcing, on account of administrative and opportunity costs incurred by the company in training apprentices from the outsourcing agency, led to the creation of such a system.

Moving to what the system is made up of, a memory system, a host of servers, networks such LAN, World Wide Web and the rest form the physical architecture and soft tools. The method which this physical architecture is sought to be integrated with is based on what is called Knowledge Transfer Plan (KTP) which is basically a template with user-specific portals for communication of all kinds between the client and the agency in addition to provisions for storage, transfer and the works. Now, before I move on to comment further, heeding to Dr.Swaminathan’s words of wisdom, here’s a disclaimer. Being a Mechanical engineer, one doesn’t claim to be an authority on computers. However, the subject-matter of this patent doesn’t require one to be a distinguished member of the Mensa club with 200+ IQ, notwithstanding the technical mumbo-jumbo of the patent which gives it an aura of esotericism.

Returning to the patent, simply broken down, it has two broad features, so to say- the means of communication with assorted functions and a method or a template which integrates all kinds of necessary information and functions in order to ensure that the offshore apprentice doesn’t need to travel half way around the world at the client company’s tabs to learn the job-specific skills. On the face of it, this certainly seems to have a lot of economic value. But the issue here is not about its money-spinning prospects; rather it is about its ability to withstand a patentability scrutiny.

The first question would be if the idea and the concept are novel. Without commenting on it, I would like to point out a few other systems which work on more or less similar lines. Collabnet is a platform for globally distributed teams to work in a centralized manner. Then we have IBM’s internal virtual world called Metaverse (we shall come back to IBM in a short while). In a slightly different yet interesting context, is Secondlife. Secondlife is in fact used in a scenario where multiple players in online gaming can interact, share and play. That apart, most design engineers would know of Computer Aided Engineering (CAE) softwares which work on break-the-wall approach where every department of a company aids in the development of a product design. So strictly speaking, the idea of a collaborative virtual environment is not novel.

The next question would be if the system is novel in parts and if the parts together combine to give a unique product? The template as given in the drawings of the patent certainly seems exhaustive, but the written description itself mentions that this template may be customised to suit multifarious contexts thereby indicating that it does not qualify to be a domain-specific or context-specific invention. I dont say that merely because it is capable of being adapted to other contexts, it loses its inventiveness, but the prevalence of such templates in other environments would certainly restrict the extension of this particular Knowledge Transfer Plan to other situations, thereby raising questions about its ingenuity. Had this plan been designed to meet one particular environment, then it may have been non-obvious which again would have had to pass muster in the eyes of those ordinarily skilled in the art (s.103 of 35 U.S.C). Such templates are available even in softwares meant for inventory management. As far as the soft tools and physical architecture are concerned, the written description itself mentions that it makes use of available tools of networking, may be a plurality of them depending on the scale of the proposed activity. Such being the case, even this aspect of the “invention” is neither novel nor non-obvious. As is evident from the examples cited above, the synthesis doesn’t seem to qualify to become a patentable synergy. Now, it is up to the interested members to judge if this “invention” qualifies for a patent grant. This should also be seen with the IBM application (US 20070162321) in mind, which was subsequently withdrawn after opposition from various quarters. Interestingly, the abstract of the application for “Outsourcing of Services” read thus:

A method for identifying human-resource work content to outsource offshore of an organization. The method is provided on a computer readable medium and includes the steps of identifying at least one task being performed by an organization; associating each identified task with a functional group within a plurality of functional groups related to the organization; determining information about individual human resources spent on each task; determining task information about human resources spent on the plurality of tasks, the task information based on the determined information about individual human resources spent on each task; using the determined task information to determine a value of each task; and outsourcing tasks having a value lower than a predefined limit to at least one of offshore and to a low cost supplier.”

Atleast as far as I understand, the subject-matter of the aforementioned application is not vastly different from that of Accenture’s patent. This was withdrawn with Bob Sutor of IBM citing the following reasons on his blog:

“My IBM colleagues in intellectual property asked me to post the following statement in order to get it out to as many people as quickly as possible:

IBM has put into the public domain and withdrawn its application for patent number US2007/0162321 – Outsourcing of Services. This patent application covers analyzing work flows, skills, economic costs, etc. Here’s why we are withdrawing it — IBM adopted a new policy a year ago to sharply reduce business method patent filings and instead stress significant technical content in its patents. Even though the patent application in question was filed eight months before the policy took effect in September, 2006, had the policy been in place at the time, IBM would not have filed the application. We’re glad the community pointed this application out so IBM could take swift action.”

Note that it is not expressly stated that this application is not “significant in technical content”; rather according to IBM’s policy, the stress would be on patents with significant technical content possibly alluding to the quantum and quality of content (or lack of it) in the application. This application was withdrawn on account of an outburst of a post by a techie on Slashdot. Interestingly, the Accenture patent was granted after IBM’s withdrawal. These two applications/patents are not isolated instances of patents on outsourcing. A host of other patents and applications exist such as US 20070043603, 20060072727 among others.

So was the USPTO paying attention to the content of Accenture’s application? And we thought the Indian Patent Office was not doing a good job. The comments on various blogs on the two “inventions” make for very interesting reading though my sense of propriety prevents me from reproducing them here. Further, some of the comments spew such anti-immigrant (read anti-Indian) venom that the issue has taken a different dimension altogether. Hopefully, the on-going competition among the Democrats to outdo each other in villifying outsourcing doesn’t give this issue a “spicy” political twist, which is all it needs to flare up passions.

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