As you head home for the holidays, perhaps passing through a checkpoint or two, take some time to think about U.S. Patent No. 6,888,460, “Advertising trays for security screening.” The owner of this patent, SecurityPoint Holdings, Inc., has sued the United States government for infringement. SecurityPoint recently won a trial on validity [PDF] and the case will now proceed to a damages phase. So, unless the validity decision gets overturned on appeal, we’ll soon be paying tax dollars for the idea of moving trays on carts.

Although the title of the patent mentions advertising, some of its claims do not require any ads at all. In fact, the patent is so broad it reads on almost any system of using trays and carts at a checkpoint. The first claim of the patent (with limitations labeled), reads as follows:

1. A method comprising:

[a] positioning a first tray cart containing trays at the proximate end of a scanning device through which objects may be passed, wherein said scanning device comprises a proximate end and a distal end,

[b] removing a tray from said first tray cart,

[c] passing said tray through said scanning device from said proximate end through to said distal end,

[d] providing a second tray cart at said distal end of said scanning device,

[e] receiving said tray passed through said scanning device in said second tray cart, and

[f] moving said second cart to said proximate end of said scanning device so that said trays in said second cart be passed through said scanning device at said proximate end.

In plain English, this claim means: send trays through a checkpoint and use two carts to move the trays back and forth. As is common with patents, the claim uses obtuse language for ordinary things. For example, the word-salad at limitation [f] pretty much just says: “use a cart to move trays from the end of the checkpoint back to the start.”

In a trial before the Court of Federal Claims, the government argued that this claim was obvious because moving trays using carts was well-known in many contexts. The court disagreed. The court suggested that even if using carts to move trays was well known, the government needed prior art specifically for security checkpoints (arguably the government had such evidence, but the court disagreed on that point too).

In fairness to SecurityPoint, evidence at trial suggested that it had developed a good system for managing trays and carts within the confined space of an airport security checkpoint. But the patent’s claims are far broader than any specific solution. This is something we often see in patent law: someone develops a (fairly narrow) innovation, but then broadly claims it, capturing things that are well-known or banal. This sort of claiming hurts follow-on inventors who develop their own ideas that wouldn’t infringe any narrower claim, and weren’t invented by the patent holder. But because the broader claim is allowed, their own inventions become infringing. Here, claim 1 is not limited to any particular kind of cart, tray, or scanner. The claim really reads on using a couple of carts to move trays and, in our view, should have been found obvious.

Together with Public Knowledge, we recently filed an amicus brief [PDF] asking the Supreme Court to consider the obviousness standard in patent law. We argue that, as applied by the Federal Circuit, obviousness law has abandoned common sense. Specifically, we argue that the Federal Circuit has failed to apply a Supreme Court case called KSR v. Teleflex that calls for a flexible, common sense approach. We hope the Supreme Court takes that case. If it does, it might help us save some tax dollars that would otherwise have gone to SecurityPoint. Unfortunately, whatever happens, we’ll likely still be stuck waiting at airport checkpoints.