John Battelle points to news of Google (the author is Nelson Minar) attempting to patent the idea of automating the incorporation of targetted ads into RSS files. Here’s the application on the USPTO site. I’ve got a few questions and concerns:
Is this a joke?
Ok, bad first question since it seems unlikely that Nelson and Google would write up this application just to have a few laughs. So here’s a better question: where’s the prior art on this? The patent was filed on 12/31/2003. I floated the idea of embedding advertising into RSS ads in October 2002 and there was prior art then. But Google’s patent application covers “targeted ads” in a “syndicated, e.g., RSS, presentation format in an automated manner”. Curiously, I believe this is already covered by an older Google patent, filed in 12/2002:
The relevance of advertisements to a user’s interests is improved. In one implementation, the content of a web page is analyzed to determine a list of one or more topics associated with that web page. An advertisement is considered to be relevant to that web page if it is associated with keywords belonging to the list of one or more topics. One or more of these relevant advertisements may be provided for rendering in conjunction with the web page or related web pages.
That’s Google AdSense in a nutshell: inserting targeted ads into web documents in an automated manner. So what is it about RSS/Atom files that make them different than plain old web pages and hence not covered under the 2002 AdSense patent? Nothing. This vocabulary of “feeds” and “syndication” is still misleading. RSS/Atom files, especially as they are described in the 12/2003 patent application, are XML files that sit on a web server waiting for someone with a web browser to come along to read them, just like XHTML files:
So, people access documents written in a markup language that have been published on a Web server with a software application. If this seems familiar to you, it should. It’s called Web browsing and has nothing to do with syndication. RSS readers and newsreaders are just specialized Web browsers…
The 12/2003 application tries to explain the difference between HTML pages and “syndicated content formats” thusly:
Syndicated content, unlike web pages which are normally stored in an HTML format, are often stored and presented in what may be described as a syndicated content format. Syndicated content formats are often XML (eXtended Markup Language) based and include structured representations of content such as news articles, search results, and web log entries. Syndicated content formats are primarily intended for providing syndicated information, e.g., news headlines, weblogs, etc. in a structured format such as a list of items, with another device, e.g., a user device, usually controlling the ultimate presentation format of the items in the list. This is in contrast to HTML which usually includes a fair amount of presentation and formatting information within an HTML document such as a web page.
That’s a pretty weak explanation and sounds a lot like what a web browser (the “user device” that controls the presentation) does with XHTML files (XML-based files without a “fair amount of presentation and formatting information”). It sounds to me like Google already has this covered with their previous patent.
[Long aside: Does the prior art of embedding AdSense ads in XHTML files invalidate this patent? Patents are tricky because they don’t cover ideas, they cover specific implementations of ideas. While the 12/2003 application states that “said syndicated format is an XML compliant format” it also specifies that “said syndicated format is a format for listing items corresponding to a channel, said received information including a listing of at least two items and including for each item, a title and a link”. That is, the XML files they’re talking about have to be RSS/Atom-ish in nature. This doesn’t rule out XHTML files in theory, but it does rule out many of them in practice.
But the really tricky part with these software patents is that the implementations of ideas are written so broadly that they might as well be patents of the ideas themselves. If you look at it that way (the patent-holding companies certainly seem willing to litigate on that basis), Google has already embedded automated, targeted advertising into XML-based files. According to news.com, Google launched their AdSense service in June 2003. When the first AdSense advertisement was embedded in an XHTML file soon after that, well, there’s your prior art on the very thing that Google attempted to patent 6 months later.]