Justice Sotomayor, Perhaps “Speed Dating” Should Be Patent-Eligible After All
Charles R. Macedo is a partner at Amster, Rothstein & Ebenstein LLP, and the author of The Corporate Insider’s Guide to US Patent Practice, which provides a basic understanding of patent practice in the United States as it relates to both obtaining and enforcing patents. Macedo’s practice specializes in all facets of intellectual property law including patents, trademarks and copyrights. In the article below he looks at speed dating in a whole new light.
On Monday, November 9, 2009, the nine Justices of the US Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Bilski v. Kappos. This case, involving what many think to be the dull and arcane subject of patent law, can have a profound effect on the US economy, including potentially allocating research funds and investments and limiting what information our society will learn through the use of patents.
In the US, a patent can be granted to the first and true inventor(s) of a novel (new) and non-obvious invention. A patent provides a limited right to exclude others for a limited period of time, in exchange for telling the world how to practice the claimed invention. In other words, if the inventor teaches the rest of society what he or she knows, our government gives him or her an exclusive window of time during which to commercialize that invention. The assumption of the patent law is that granting a patent will foster innovation in two significant ways: (1) by encouraging investment in exchange for the limited monopoly rights, and (2) by providing disclosure of what might otherwise be maintained in secret and/or forgotten.
The issue the Supreme Court is deciding in Bilski is what types of inventions are “patent worthy” (as Elaine in Seinfeld might have phrased it), and what types of inventions do not even get considered for a patent. This debate is so important that apparently it is rumored that more amicus curiae briefs (including a submission prepared by me) were submitted to the Supreme Court than any other patent case in US history.
In an effort to divine where to draw the line on patent eligibility, the Justices posed a variety of hypothetical inventions to test patent worthiness using a proposed rule from the Appellate Court, to see whether that Court got the right answer. As an apparent example of an invention that should not be patent worthy, Justice Sotomayor, the newest member of the Court, is crediting with asking “why not speed dating?” [Court observers note that the transcript may be in error as to whether she said “speed dating” as reported in the media or “speaking”, but “speed dating” is a more interesting hypothetical].
In response to Justice Sotomayor, I say, “why not?” A brief review of Wikipedia on the subject, as it is at least in Wikipedia’s eyes deserving of its own web page, shows that “Speed dating is a formalized matchmaking process or dating system whose purpose is to encourage people to meet a large number of new people.” Certainly, this is a worthy goal for society to encourage.
“Speed dating” (two words with a space, in contrast to the single word which is a registered trademark of Speeddating Foundation., see US Trademark Registration No. 2,463,420) is a recent innovation. According to Wikipedia, “the first speed-dating event took place at Pete’s Café in Beverly Hills in late 1998” and “several commercial services began offering secular round-robin dating events” thereafter.
Many different techniques of speed dating have developed, with different themes and rules, all with the lofty goal of introducing two hopefully compatible people, who might not have otherwise met, in a time efficient manner. Each has its own process – a series of steps performed – many of which have proven profitable for their organizers and the individuals who pay to participate in these events.
It is not just Wikipedia that has found the topic worthy of investigation: the University of Pennsylvania and others have studied the events, and published their research findings. Further, pop culture has featured the concept in television shows like Sex in the City and in movies like Hitch.
Finally, perhaps Justice Sotomayor will be surprised to learn that the US Government has recognized that, at least when a speed date was tied to a computer in a manner conceived by Mordechai Teicher, the invention was entitled to patent protection in US Patent No. 7,305,398, entitled “Apparatus and Method for Managing Social Games”.