Was there a landmark controversial software patent of a trivial idea before the "XOR flashing cursor" patent?



Currently the majority of bad press about trivial software patents is all centred around Apple and other smartphone industry players.

A few years ago it was the Amazon "1-click" patent everybody was deriding. (US 5960411)

Going back a few decades when I was getting into computers I recall being shocked to learn that the implementation of a flashing cursor / caret on a computer screen using XOR was patented and many well known tech companies were paying royalties on it. (US 4197590)

Were there earlier patents before even this that was widely denigrated as obvious and trivial? Did they lead to any court decisions that now constitute important jurisprudence?


Posted 2012-09-06T08:52:29.630

Reputation: 275

1This is the patent that killed Commodore! They had to shut down when they could not pay the bill for this one. It was the straw that broke the camels back! You monsters! – geoffc – 2012-09-20T17:49:26.780

Hi close voter, please keep in mind that it's considered constructive to leave a comment why you are voting to close a question. We might be able to try to save it or use it as an example to clarify for the future what are good and bad questions. – hippietrail – 2012-09-06T09:59:23.920

1I didn't cast the close vote, but your question is asking for example, which may generate a list of equally correct answers. I'm just not sure how many of those examples that one can possibly find, so I don't cast close vote myself. – nhahtdh – 2012-09-06T12:56:23.087

3@nhahtdh Searching for jurisprudence seems highly relevant on this site. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' – 2012-09-06T14:09:12.627

Do you think it would improve the question if I asked for the "first" or "earliest"? That might make it technically "objective" but there's possibly a trade-off between "early" and "degree of controversy" anyway. The 1-click and the XOR cursor really did stand out from any background noise though so I think they make a good baseline. If a list of equally plausible answers come in though I can convert to community wiki or voluntarily close the question. – hippietrail – 2012-09-06T15:40:52.487

To add what @nhahtdh said, what is the practical problem behind the question? What is relevant in knowing there was another "infamous" trivial software patent before that? – kiamlaluno – 2012-09-06T19:21:36.880

@kiamlaluno: Well we'd be able to cite it when telling people who are unaware of the problems of trivial software patents more about their history and background: "Bad software patent controversies are not new and have been well known at least as far back as 1969 when the flashing cursor was patented". We would have more fuel to prepare such arguments, or at least know this is already the best place to start. – hippietrail – 2012-09-06T19:29:17.993

2As long as answers not only list patents, but also link to strong evidence of them actually being trivial and 'widely denigrated' - this type of question could be useful and constructive. I'd like to see where this goes before casting a vote. – Tim Post – 2012-09-07T02:00:13.533

In fact I couldn't figure out when the XOR cursor patent was filed or granted. The 1969 date turned out to be in a referenced patent. I'm guessing 1980-ish is more likely... OK it turns out Google Patents page rendering stomps on the date fields on my netbook! Filing date: Jan 19, 1978, Issue date: Apr 8, 1980 – hippietrail – 2012-09-07T07:56:02.133



In 1972 the US Supreme Court decided the case of Gottschalk v. Benson, which addressed the then-controversial idea of whether or not the software implementation of an algorithm for converting decimal numbers to binary could be patented. The algorithm itself was very straightforward (simple enough that lawyers could explain the thing in its entirety in a few paragraphs in the holding), and the court rejected the patent, on the grounds that allowing the software implementation of the algorithm to be patented would "wholly pre-empt the mathematical formula and in practical effect would be a patent on the algorithm itself."

Gottschalk is usually cited as the first important ruling on software patents, and it's hard to imagine a substantially earlier application - the actual application is hard to find online, but it was filed in 1963 (according to the first appellate decision). It also had significant parties supporting both sides (IBM on one side, Mobil on the other, for example). So it's probably the earliest example of a controversial software patent.


Posted 2012-09-06T08:52:29.630

Reputation: 420