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.

"This is the biggest launch in the company's history. That's for sure," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said at a press conference at the Nasdaq stock exchange in New York.

The announcement offered little in the way of new information and served more as a rallying cry for corporate customers and the multitude of partners in the Windows ecosystem. Microsoft announced earlier this month that it had completed work on the operating system, a major milestone for the oft-delayed product that has changed markedly from the company's initial conception under the Longhorn code name.

However, most security companies look as if they need more time to deliver tools to protect the new operating system. Symantec, Trend Micro and CA are still working on products for Vista. McAfee is the only major security software maker that currently has products available for the operating system.

"The absence of security software from the major vendors will be another reason why business will not migrate to Vista right away," said Natalie Lambert, an analyst at Forrester Research. That's in addition to the lack of support for Vista in general applications, which the tools businesses need to run their operations, she noted.

Windows Vista took longer to arrive than hoped, and it might not have everything that was once planned, but Windows chief Jim Allchin maintains that "it's a big deal."

The update has security improvements, some snazzy new graphics and new desktop-searching abilities, among other features. For those who have been tuning out all the Vista chatter for the last few months, click here for a primer on the new Windows operating system.

Super cell
You can do a lot more with a cell phone that you thought.

Verizon Wireless wants people to watch television on their phones, and it's wheeling and dealing to make that happen. The telecommunications giant will soon offer content from the video-sharing Web site Revver, a YouTube competitor that enables users to upload and share videos, as part of its V Cast video service. The deal came a day after the wireless operator, jointly owned by Verizon Communications and European giant Vodafone, announced that it would offer clips from video heavyweight YouTube.

At the heart of Verizon Wireless' newfound enthusiasm for hip video-sharing sites is a big need to entice its 57 million subscribers into spending an additional $15 per month for its mobile-video services, which would help make big investments in so-called next-generation high-speed networks (also known as 3G networks) pay off.

And did you forgot your credit card? Don't have cash on you? No worries--just use your cell phone to pay the bill. That's what some folks in Boulder, Colo., can do if they sign up for an account with a Boulder-based start-up called Feed Tribes. The company's setup lets customers write a check using a text message.

Consumers sign up through the company's Web site, establishing an account that's linked to a checking or savings account. When customers are ready to pay a bill, they punch in an SMS code for Feed Tribes. A PIN number is used to access the customer's account, and a few seconds later, he or she receives a code from Free Tribes that's good for 15 minutes. Then the customer gives that code to the cashier, who enters it into a machine that debits the account.

Meanwhile, Yahoo has delved into the growing world of mobile social networking with Mixd, a recently introduced service geared to new-media-savvy youths. But Mixd isn't really social networking in the traditional sense. You aren't creating a profile a la MySpace.com and striving to build a bigger and better-looking friends list. It's rather like cattle herding for the partygoer sector: you use Yahoo's service to organize a group of your friends for a party or night out--Yahoo calls it a "Mixer"--coordinating it all through text and picture messages.

Once a Mixer is formed, members of the group--who do not need to have Yahoo accounts--can message each other in both text and picture formats, and a log of the entire Mixer is posted on a corresponding Web page.

Also of note
Microsoft will soon start pushing out a new version of its controversial Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications antipiracy tool to Windows XP users...Russia agreed to shut down Allofmp3.com and other music sites based in that country that the U.S. government says are offering downloads illegally...A new adware program silently installs on Mac OS X systems and opens Web browser windows.

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