Week in review: Tell it to the judge

Some of the weightier issues facing the tech world were before the Supreme Court this week.

Some of the weightier issues facing the tech world were before the Supreme Court this week.

Software and hardware makers have long complained that a glut of so-called junk patents threatens to disrupt the way they do business. In their third major patent case this year, Supreme Court justices appeared to take issue with the current legal standard for granting patents, which many high-tech firms claim is ineffective at weeding out inventions that should be obvious.

During hour-long oral arguments in a case closely watched by the business community, Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that an existing federal-court test for determining patent obviousness relied too little on common sense. Justice Antonin Scalia went so far as to call the test "gobbledygook" and "meaningless."

If the high court decides to rewrite the legal standard of patent "obviousness" to make it more restrictive, it could have wide-ranging effects by reshaping U.S. intellectual-property law and reducing the number of marginal patents. A decision is expected by July 2007.

CNET News.com readers expressed displeasure with the current state of the patent system.

"Common sense dictates that patent protection must be granted and preserved for only those ideas that cross the threshold from existing and obvious to ingenious and inventive," one reader wrote in the CNET News.com TalkBack forum.

In another patent case, the Supreme Court refused to consider Microsoft's appeal in a long-running patent infringement case, according to lawyers for a Guatamalan inventor who sued Microsoft. In June, a federal appeals court upheld a ruling that Microsoft's Office software infringes on technology patented by inventor Carlos Armando Amado. In June 2005, an Orange County, Calif., jury awarded Amado $6.1 million, ruling that Microsoft's method of linking its Access database and Excel spreadsheet infringed on Amado's technology.

The court also heard arguments in a case to determine whether the Environmental Protection Agency should regulate emissions of carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Rulings aren't expected until next summer.

Carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas that contributes to climate change. As concerns over global climate change build, many experts expect the U.S. federal government to put mechanisms in place to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What is still up in the air is what form regulations will take, and whether state and local efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be coordinated with any federal policies, according to Fred Wellington, a senior financial analyst at think tank World Resources Institute.

One possibility is a carbon tax that would be paid by large organizations such as utility providers and manufacturers. Another system, already used to reduce other gases in the United States, is a "cap and trade" system, in which possible polluters are allocated a certain number of units of carbon dioxide emissions. If they emit more than their allocated cap, they can then purchase credits, or "offsets," on carbon-trading markets. The credits can be the surplus emission units from companies that have not reached their set limit.

In a case that may one day go to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Department of Justice accused a Web site owner of being a child pornographer--even though prosecutors acknowledge that there's no evidence that he has ever taken a single photograph of an unclothed minor. Rather, they argue, his models struck poses that were illegally provocative.

The Web sites that prompted the indictments are now offline. But copies saved in Google's cache and through Archive.org show that the photographs in question depicted girls wearing everything from sweaters to, more frequently, swimsuits and midriff-baring attire.

First Amendment scholars interviewed Wednesday raised questions about the Justice Department's attack on Internet child modeling. They warned that any legal precedent might endanger the mainstream use of child models in advertising and suggested that prosecutors' budgets might be better spent investigating actual cases of child molestation.

Vista hits the streets
Microsoft announced that its newest version of Windows, along with a revamped Office and new Exchange e-mail server, is completed and is now available to business customers. The company said it will make Vista and Office 2007 available to consumers worldwide on January 30.

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