The take-a-number toilet reservation system is back. And it's mad.
A few years ago, IBM was issued U.S. Patent No. 6,329,919 for a “System and method for providing reservations for restroom use.” This made news. The patent soon became the face of all that was evil with the recent patentability of business methods. In fact, public outcry rose to such a level that USPTO Director James Rogan ordered a reexamination of the patent. A couple months later, IBM disclaimed the patent.
(Of course, the patent’s poster boy status lives on: like the Walker Digital patent family previously featured here, this disclaimed patent was nevertheless cited by Judge Mayer in his Bilski dissent as somewhere between “ridiculous” and “absurd”)
That brings us to this week’s issuance:
Inventor: Nitesh Ratnakar (Oak Creek, WI) 1. A lavatory reservation system comprising of; receive a request to use lavatory from user; enter user in queue in assigned lavatory set according to
set of rules; assign access code for lavatory reservation request; notify user of lavatory status;
Inventor: Nitesh Ratnakar (Oak Creek, WI)
1. A lavatory reservation system comprising of;
receive a request to use lavatory from user;
enter user in queue in assigned lavatory set according to set of rules;
assign access code for lavatory reservation request;
notify user of lavatory status;
Commentary: Believe it or not, this is not the first bathroom reservation system since ‘919. There’s U.S. Patent Pub. 2002/0022896, innocently entitled “Queuing methods and apparatus” by its patent attorney-applicant, and U.S. Patent No. 6,237,872 which was actually filed a few years before ‘919 (and granted to Dr. Reuven Bar-Levav, a Michigan psychiatrist who was murdered by a former patient in 1999).
Like those applications, today's also has an individual “non-traditional” inventor in Dr. Nitesh Ratnakar. Unlike the previous applications, however, this one was filed pro se. And I must say, it is one of the better pro se filings I’ve seen, both in form and substance of the file history (compare, for example, the classic Godly Powers application). More impressive is that he filed this application electronically before EFS-Web. Any patent attorney who suffered through that kludgy system surely appreciates Dr. Ratnakar’s extraordinary efforts. Even I, a self-proclaimed tech-type, avoided this system and used it just once, and then only because the Rules required it in my particular situation. So kudos, Doctor. [Note: I still would strongly discourage prosecution of a patent pro se.]
Turning to the meat, let’s compare Dr. Ratnakar's claim to that of IBM’s erstwhile ‘919 patent:
1. A method of providing reservations for restroom use,
comprising: receiving a
reservation request from a user; and notifying the user
when the restroom is available for his or her use.
1. A method of providing reservations for restroom use, comprising:
receiving a reservation request from a user; and
notifying the user when the restroom is available for his or her use.
Yep. Reading that two line claim, it’s understandable why people were up in arms. But it’s not clear if the outrage was because of patentable subject matter (101, following the State Street case) or obviousness (103). Recall that this patent was about to be reexamined because of prior art, not because the subject matter wasn’t patentable. [By statute, all reexaminations are based on prior art. 35 U.S.C. Section 302. Should this requirement be changed to allow for new 101 issues? 112?]
In contrast, Dr. Ratnakar’s claim looks pretty good with respect to Bilski. There’s some fairly particular apparatuses in there: a door; a door lock; and a lavatory, at least. And there may even be a physical transformation in the position of the door lock. This claim’s undoing could turn out to be all those “means” under 112 (or 101 – see Ex parte Snyder), but I’m not looking at the spec to analyze that.
The file wrapper is unremarkable, other than the fact that the pro se inventor successfully navigated through two rejections, an RCE and an examiner interview to get his patent issued. Then again, judging from his other filings and issued patents, Dr. Ratnakar appears to have quite a bit of experience with the patent system. His "Parking location reminder device" (U.S. Patent No. 7,411,518) is actually pretty nifty, imho.
So what do you think? Does this week's toilet reservation patent bother you as much as IBM’s ‘919? If not, why not?
As a final note, I'll point out that then-Director Jon Dudas gave a talk last year at which he reportedly referred to an application the USPTO “recently received for what was claimed to be a better way to stand in line while waiting to use an airplane toilet” as an illustration of declining application quality. Sounds like Dudas may have been referring to this very patent, rather than IBM’s. No doubt some will cast this "exemplary" application's allowance as an indictment of the PTO’s ability to separate the wheat from the chaff...