Paper Catalog + Computer Database = Patent? Um, No.
Last week, the patent office agreed to reexamine a patent it granted in 1994 on a "Computer-assisted parts sales method." Orion IP (later renamed Clear with Computers) has filed many, many lawsuits asserting infringement of this and related patents by many, many defendants. Although EFF didn't file this request for reexamination, at one time the patent was owned by Firepond, just like one of the patents on our Patent Busting Project's Ten Most Wanted list.
So just what is this wonderful sales method? In a nutshell, the patent claims ownership over the idea of finding out what a customer wants, electronically finding out what you have that matches that customer's needs, electronically collecting information about the stuff you have to offer the customer, and putting that information into a pitch to the customer.
If you're thinking to yourself, "why that's no different than just looking things up in a catalog," you're not alone; while seeking a closely related patent, the very same applicant told the patent office, "The system essentially computerizes a parts book, with the exception that the system adds the unique element of customer benefits." (I tried, and failed, to figure out what the "unique element of customer benefits" refers to.)
Indeed, if you remove the word "electronically," the patent covers exactly what sales people have been doing for customers for ages. Unfortunately for the patent owner (and fortunately for the rest of us), saying "do it with a computer" does not an invention make.
(For those who want to look into this further, the patent being reexamined is Patent No. 5,367,627 and the control number for the reexamination is 90/010,185. And if you're curious what happens next in the reeexamination, take a look at the handy chart that appears as Appendix A to our white paper on improving patent quality via reexaminations.)