This week in legal tech news

Some U.S. Supreme Court justices suggested that the patent at the heart of a suit against eBay may be too vague and trivial to even be taken seriously.

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Steven Musil
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In a dispute that's part of a broader debate over the future of the patent system, some U.S. Supreme Court justices suggested that the patent at the heart of a suit against eBay may be too vague and trivial to even be taken seriously.

During oral arguments that lasted about an hour, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that if eBay's "Buy It Now" feature could be patented, "then maybe A&P could patent its process for a supermarket."

Patent holder MercExchange sued eBay in September 2001, accusing it of patent infringement through its use of the "Buy It Now" feature, which allows shoppers to halt the auction process and purchase items at a fixed price. A federal appeals court sided with MercExchange and granted it an injunction against eBay. The injunction is currently on hold.

When Research In Motion's wildly popular BlackBerry service faced a shutdown earlier this month, the legal spat in that case illustrated the potentially disruptive effects of court injunction based on patent infringements. In a case brought by eBay that the online auction site hopes will curb what it calls "near-automatic" injunctions, the U.S. Supreme Court is examining the question of when such court orders are appropriate.

Most patent disputes proceed in mind-numbing obscurity, but this one has drawn an unusual amount of attention, in part because the BlackBerry shutdown threat was so recent. Many of the nation's largest software, hardware and Internet companies have sided with eBay in their own briefs, while individual inventors and pharmaceutical giants have opposed the online auctioneer.

Meanwhile, a Texas lawyer has lost a patent lawsuit over antipiracy technology embedded in Microsoft's product activation program. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court's decision, which said Microsoft did not infringe on Kenneth Nash's patent for detecting pirated software by assigning each program a unique ID and verifying it over the Internet.

The dispute involves patent 6,449,645. It describes how to collect the unique ID--such as a serial number or activation key--assigned to each computer in an Internet database, preferably without the user's knowledge, and check for multiple, running copies of the same program. That could let it flag two friends who were illegally running, say, a video game with the same activation key.