Microsoft owns your sweat

Observations on patents

You may have accepted Microsoft's omnipresence in the office, but how comfortable are you with the knowledge that the company has patented human skin? In the newest acquisition for its intellectual portfolio, the computing giant has claimed copyright on the use of the body to transmit electrical data.

Mark Twain wrote: "I knew that a country without a patent office and good patent laws was just a crab, and couldn't travel any way but sideways or backways." Such is the accepted view of patents - protective legislation that enables inventors to share new ideas without fear of being pipped to the post financially. But does Microsoft's latest patent really fulfil that function?

Awarded last month, it concerns the use of the body as a system for passing electronic data between devices: between a PDA (personal digital assistant or a small hand-held computer) worn on a belt and a radio affixed to a hat, for example. Microsoft's proposals include the use of sweat as a conduit, with the body's physical resistance to electronic flow being used to create a virtual keyboard on a patch of skin. But the body as electronic transmitter has existed as long as the body itself. Just ask anyone with a central nervous system. Or anyone who has ever been struck by lightning.

It is not the first time Microsoft has managed to patent something that you might reasonably think belongs to us all. In 1999, it filed a patent for short, long and double clicks. Made law last month, the patent covers clicking patterns used on "limited service devices", such as PDAs. Though similar methods have been around since the advent of the digital watch, companies must now pay Microsoft licensing fees if they wish to use the technology. In early June, the humble task list was added to Microsoft's intellectual portfolio. Now, any time a "to do" component is incorporated into software development, the US giant feels the benefit.

The patents are awarded by the US Patent and Trademark Office, so they affect any products sold on the US market. Microsoft has supported an EU draft directive to enable software copyrights to be enforced in Europe, but it seems likely that the bill will be stopped by Euro MPs wishing to protect the interests of regional companies. Poor countries are more likely to allow Microsoft patents to operate, so that they can receive the benefits of new technology. But as Microsoft patents ever more basic principles and levies huge fees on their use, underfunded local firms have diminishing opportunities for development. So much for patents encouraging invention.

How does Microsoft get away with it? Part of the problem may be the underfunding of the Patent and Trademark Office. It has a backlog of nearly 500,000 applications, and many may not get as much consideration as they should.