There is quite a stir right now about a legal clash between the dating services JDate and JSwipe. While much of the coverage has been devoted to JDate's trademark claim—does JDate own the letter "J"?—the lawsuit also involves a patent, U.S. Patent No. 5,950,200.
Patents are long documents—JDate's patent runs 22 pages—but the parts that actually matter, the parts that define what inventions the patent is actually about, those parts of the patent are called the "claims." These are the numbered and indented sentences, written in terse legalese, that appear at the end of every patent.
JDate's patent claims, which date back to 1997, are about as lawyerly as they come, but conceptually they describe nothing more than a pretty simple dating service. So to help you understand them, I've done a simple replacement of some of the formalistic terms ("a first user," "a second user") with names ("Alice," "Bob").
Text of the JDate Patent
1. A method that notifies people that they feel reciprocal interest for each other, comprising the steps, performed by a processor of a data processing system having a memory, of:
This is a process performed by some sort of system. Let's call that system Trent.
receiving input from a first user indicating a user ID of a specific person in whom the first user has an interest, the first user already being aware of the existence of the person whose ID they entered;
Trent receives input from Alice indicating she is interested in the man with the beard. She is aware of the existence of that man (say, because she met him at a party).
receiving input from a second user indicating a user ID of a specific person in whom the second user has an interest, the second user already being aware of the existence of the person whose ID they entered;
Bob indicates that he is interested in the woman with red hair. He is aware of the existence of that woman (because he met her at the same party).
determining whether the user ID of the person in whom the first user has an interest matches a user ID of the second user;
Trent determines that the person Alice is interested in, the man with the beard, is Bob…
determining whether the user ID of the person in whom the second user has an interest matches a user ID of the first user; and
And that the person Bob is interested in, the redhead, is Alice.
if and only if a match occurs in both of the determining steps, notifying the first user and the second user that a match has occurred.
So, only because they both were interested in each other, Trent notifies Alice and Bob that they're a match.
Setting aside the use of a computer, this is no new process at all. It's nothing more than a dating service that asks people who they like and matches up the mutual interests. It's the classified ads. It's speed dating. It's practically the premise of You've Got Mail (which is based on a 1937 play, predating JDate's patent by decades).
In fact, it goes back far beyond even all of those. A newspaper article from 1799 described a "new and original imperial and royal plan" used in "all the polished courts throughout the known world!" According to this plan:
Every person, of either sex, who desires to enter into a treaty of marriage, is first to subscribe a certain sum. All ladies and gentlemen to describe themselves, by real or fictitious names, as they may choose; and give a detail of themselves…
The subscribers to be furnished with a list of descriptions, and when one occurs likely to suit, to signify the individual would be glad to correspond with the number in question, &c.; and, if mutually approved, the interview may be afterwards arranged.
This is exactly like JDate's patent, even down to the user IDs.
It is this precise type of "old as the hills" patent that the Supreme Court warned against in its 2004 case Alice v. CLS Bank, when it declared invalid a patent on a computerized method of exchanging currencies. As the court explained, a "fundamental" practice such as a "method of organizing human activity" is the sort of basic, abstract idea that cannot be patented. More importantly, because of the "ubiquity of computers" in daily life, the court said that merely using a computer to perform one of those basic, abstract ideas wasn't enough of an invention to deserve a patent.
JDate's patent must fall into this category of unpatentable abstract ideas, considering that the practice of arranging dates is just about the most fundamental method of organizing human activity imaginable.
We sometimes think that patents are distant from ordinary people, that they are the province of science labs and big companies. So when we see patents like these, on ideas like matchmaking or swinging on a swing or making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, it should remind us that the patent system, as it has developed today, can touch on the lives of every one of us. It makes it that much more important for all of us to demand a fair and reasonable patent system that doesn't let companies own the basic things we do every day.
Charles Duan is the director of the Patent Reform Project at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group that promotes the public interest in technology policy and law.