IBM’s daft patent for ‘out of office’ emails

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From the crazy bureaucracy department is the news that IBM has been granted a patent for Out of Office emails!

That’s right, those automatic emails that go out when you’re poolside are now the property of IBM. From the patent application:

“When the out of office agent is enabled, it automatically responds to e-mail that arrives when the user is out of the office. While configuring the agent, the user can specify the text of the message, and set rules on who should receive the special alert messages or who should not receive the alert messages.

If that sounds very familiar, it should.  Outlook for Windows has this feature for as long as we can remember. Look under File | Info | Automatic Replies in recent versions of Outlook/Windows.

IBM applied, and fought for seven years, to get patent US 9547842 B2 “Out-of-office electronic mail messaging system”, despite it already existing for some decades in many different forms.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a good summary of this ridiculous situation.

After a public outcry, IBM has said it won’t enforce the patent, which is a start.  They are reported to have filed a formal disclaimer on the patent.

It’s easy to blame IBM for this nonsense, but the company merely took advantage of a broken patent system.  A patent for such a common and long standing process should never have got past the first hurdle.  IBM’s lawyers used some ingenious sophistry to convince the US Patent Office to allow the patent.

Another example of how patent law, especially in the US, needs updating to the 21st Century.  Alas, there are too many vested interests making money off the current setup.

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