Actually, they awarded it about six weeks ago. United States Patent No. 9,547,842, the “Out-of-office electronic mail messaging system” started from an application back in 2010. The abstract for the patent – the rough description of the more detailed content within – describes the system as requiring a “start date, an end date, and at least one availability indicator message.”
“If an e-mail has not been sent to a receiver since activation and if a current date is prior to the start date, the first system is further adapted to attach the availability indicator metadata to the e-mail and send the email to the receiver.”
It’s a bit of a roundabout way to say it but, yeah, that’s pretty much how Out-of-Office works, and how it’s worked for many years – well before the 2010 filing, most importantly.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, this seems to fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case Alice v. CLS Bank. That case had the Supreme Court deciding that, as the EFF explains, “an abstract idea does not become eligible for a patent simply because it is implemented on a computer.”
It seems like the Patent Office didn’t look at the real world when granting this patent. There are hundreds of different implementations of the idea, and IBM’s patent doesn’t seem to add anything of note to the many systems we’ve seen and used over the years.
There is a bright side, though
Speaking to Ars Technica, IBM responded to criticism of the patent. An IBM spokesperson said the company “has decided to dedicate the patent to the public,” and has filed a formal disclaimer foregoing its rights to the patent. That means that some other company can’t come along and patent it later, at least.
This looks like a magnanimous move on IBM’s part, but it seems more like a response to criticism. Legal representatives from the company have spoken out against Alice v. CLS Bank as recently as last month. No one needs to worry about IBM enforcing this patent, but we’ll want to keep our eyes open for more stuff like this in the future.