Government to review Y2K-fix patent
December 28, 1999
by Linda Rosencrance
(IDG) -- In a rare move, the U.S. Patent Office has decided to re-examine the year 2000 date-correction patent for windowing that it issued to software developer Bruce Dickens on Sept. 8, 1998.
But Dickens' attorney, Bill Cray of the Laguna Beach, Calif., law office of Levin & Hawes, said, "Bruce welcomes the opportunity to have the patent reviewed and anticipates that it will strengthen his patent when it gets through the re-examination process."
The agency's decision comes after the inventor sent bills to Fortune 1,000 companies and software manufacturers asking each of them to pay him up to $50,000 in licensing fees, as well as an additional $1,000-$2,000 per month, according to the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America (ITAA). In addition, ITAA said Dickens was planning to increase the fees substantially for companies which didn't pay him before the first of the year.
While not taking a position on the patent office's decision, Marc Pearl, ITAA's legal counsel, said the move will help companies stay focused on fixing and testing systems in the final run up to the year 2000 date rollover.
"We had never taken a position on this. And we had never told companies not to pay the fees. What we did tell them was to check with legal counsel," Pearl said. "But we were concerned that [even though this was] something as obvious as windowing, an individual had found a patent officer who said this was 'non-obvious,' " Pearl said. "A number of IT companies were concerned because they had been doing things like this before, even though not directly related to the Y2K date change."
Pearl said he hoped the publicity surrounding the patent office's decision would discourage companies from writing checks until they consulted an attorney.
Dickens worked for McDonnell Douglas, which is now part of The Boeing Co., in Long Beach, Calif., when the firm applied for a windowing patent. When the patent office granted the patent, the company assigned it to him.
Since that time Dickens started a company called Dickens2000 to solicit licensees for the windowing technique, which he calls Dickens Y2K Solution. Windowing is the technique used for accurately interpreting data entered in the double-digit year fields. Rather than having to rewrite a program to represent all dates with four digits -- 99 would be replaced by 1999 -- windowing allows a programmer to enable software to understand whether the last two digits of a date should be preceded by a "19" or a "20."
This technique creates a "window" that would allow a computer to recognize, for example, that years entered as 00-29 would represent 2000-2029 and years entered as 30-99 would represent 1930-1999.
In a press release Q. Todd Dickinson, the commissioner of patents and trademarks, said he decided to review the patent after the agency discovered information that wasn't considered when the patent was originally examined and granted.
In this case numerous companies contacted the patent office complaining -- as well as providing documentation -- that the method was already being used by programmers before Dickens claimed he developed it, Pearl said.
In the release Dickinson noted that "commissioner-ordered re-examinations were discretionary and rare." Patent office spokeswoman Ruth Nyblod said the agency couldn't comment further on the matter because of legal issues.
Kazim Isfahani, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said the patent commissioner's decision to re-examine the patent was a "positive action."
"There has been an overwhelming amount of evidence that there was "prior art" [evidence that the technique had been in use] before Dickens applied for his patent," Isfahani said.
"The patent office never puts out a press release announcing that they are going to re-examine a patent," Isfahani said. "But the patent office has come under a lot of scrutiny recently for not being up on the times technologically-speaking. This is a way to [refute that]."
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