back to article Congratulations IBM for 'inventing' out-of-office email. You win Stupid Patent of the Month

You know the out-of-office automatic emails that we've been using for the past 20 years? Well, IBM has just been awarded a patent that states it practically invented the system. IBM applied for the patent seven years ago and has amended its filing since then. As a result, the US Patent Office issued Patent No 9,547,842 on …

  1. Chris Miller

    No time to post a comment, I'm busy filing a patent application for two circular discs, one at each end of a rod. I reckon it will revolutionise dragging stuff on sleds.

    Waddya mean, 'prior art'?

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      You thought you were joking

      Wheel already patented. Try fire or crop rotation.

      1. Anonymous Blowhard

        Re: You thought you were joking

        How about "interlocking blocks of stone as a means of constructing buildings"?

      2. Diogenes

        Re: You thought you were joking

        Try fire or crop rotation.

        IIRC Fire already patented in Australia

        But maybe not "on a mobile device". Another patent claim against Samsung ???

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: You thought you were joking


          Ahhhh, shove it up yer nose!

          (HHGTTG reference for those who may have forgotten it)

      3. Chris Miller
        Thumb Up

        Re: You thought you were joking

        Thanks Flocke! But my wheel is going to have round corners ...

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: You thought you were joking

          Mine is going to have an infinite number of round corners.

    2. Justicesays

      "two circular discs, one at each end of a rod mobile device"

      Much more likely to get approved now.

    3. ecofeco Silver badge

      Exactly. This is prior art and a bullshit patent.

      It's patently illegal.

  2. ElaborateCalculator

    No response?

    "Big Blue was not available for immediate comment."

    I hope you at least got an out of office mail when you tried to contact them

  3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    As I've said before, patent offices should bear all defendants' costs when stupid patents like this are successfully challenged with compensation for any other costs incurred, for instance by not being able to make use of whatever it was while the case was pending.

    Yes, I know the objection, it's taxpayers' money. Well, it's up to the taxpayers to stop it. Make some compensatory savings in the patent office; chuck out the patent examiners who were responsible, claw the money back from them, whatever.

    1. tekHedd

      "Yes, I know the objection, it's taxpayers' money."

      Try it this way: If the patent office is supposed to be profitable, then it's a business. If it's a business, then it's also a person, right? And a person must be responsible for the consequences of her actions. There you go.

      1. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge


        In the US, we are still waiting for a Wall Street firm or person to be held accountable for the 2008 financial crisis that Wall Street created.

        1. Miss Lincolnshire

          Re: @tekHedd

          Legend (as in utter made up bollocks) has it the culprit was Gordon Brown

      2. Gnoitall


        " And a person must be responsible for the consequences of her actions. There you go."

        Alas, the Patent Office Corporation Person would be a Government Person, and therefore damn near immune to the consequence of its (official) actions. (Per sovereign immunity ( If the PTO was acting in accordance with their official policy and direction, they're untouchable.

        Must be nice to be a Corporate Government Person.

    2. Notas Badoff

      Not money... patents go poof

      For every stupid patent challenged as invalid and found so, the sponsor of the challenge gets to take away / invalidate / noop one other patent - their choice of which one.

      Is some patent costing your company a gold ingot a year in licensing fees? Find another, indefensible patent from the predatory company, challenge and win, and you get to invalidate their pot of gold!

      Now that would make a real patent war! Bwahaha!

  4. Infernoz Bronze badge

    Been in Microsoft Outlook for freaking ages

    I forget when I first saw/used it, probably before 2007!

    Probably plenty of earlier prior art, like Perl scripts on early email systems!

    1. Lusty

      Re: Been in Microsoft Outlook for freaking ages

      No up to 2007 Outlook had the cunningly similar "out of facility" which didn't feature a start date but did allow you to use it in a factory environment or other non-office facility. The more specific "Out of Office" replaced it only after IBM invented the concept.

      1. yoganmahew

        Re: Been in Microsoft Outlook for freaking ages

        You could set up out of office auto-reply on PROFS way back in the day

    2. Ian 55

      FSVO 'early email systems'

      Email: c1962.

      Perl: 1987.

      So only twenty five years of email systems before Perl was created.

  5. redpawn Silver badge

    No Time to Check

    The patent clerks did not have this feature for their email so they had all their mail forwarded to their Newtons when they were out of the office. This kept them so busy that they had no time to do research so they thought it a splendid idea.

    1. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge

      Re: No Time to Check

      And their Newtons don't have web access, much less browsers, so they could not even think of Googling anything.

    2. TRT Silver badge

      Re: No Time to Check

      Has anyone patented a means of registering the ideas, documentation and prototypes of inventors, companies and other legal entities for the purposes of protecting commercially exploitable intellectual properties?

  6. jake Silver badge

    I'm fairly certain that I taught IBM's email team ...

    ... how to do this with either delivermail or sendmail in roughly 1985.

    1. Nick Kew

      Re: I'm fairly certain that I taught IBM's email team ...

      It was sometime in the '80s I first encountered it, and it was old back then. In the 1990s we were bemoaning the arrival of a new generation of broken autoresponders from the likes of Microsoft, that turned autoresponses into spam by sending them willy-nilly to every mailinglist the outlook-luser was subscribed to.

      Looks like IBM still has the traditional UNIX vacation program that Just Got Things Right.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: I'm fairly certain that I taught IBM's email team ...

        It'd be nice if IBM at least acknowledged Eric Allman ...

  7. FelixReg

    Compton's encyclopedia

    Have a ball scanning the "patent citations" in this thing. They start in 2003. Apparently email was new then.

    And what a cluster of jokes!

    They seem to be like the infamous Compton's patent, one of the first software patents. Compton seemed to take a typical system description document, such as big organizations make before beginning any project, and put it in patent-ese form and language. Viola! A novel idea. Which, hey, maybe it was novel to the talent at Compton's, apparently unfamiliar with computers. Or unfamiliar with an "electronic computing device", which back in the '70's or so was what you sprinkled your description of the wheel with to make it novel and patentable.

    Wanna speculate on how may patent applications there are right now sprinkling their software descriptions with "machine learning" or some such blather to make blatantly obvious ideas able to support the livelihood of patent lawyers?

    Sprinkling patent applications with accepted buzzwords is one of a plurality of novel methodologies my (patent pending) automated patent generation system employs. My novel buzz-sprinkle method, utilizing machine learning technology, will be for sale as soon as it passes review. As will my novel neural-net based buzzword identification and extraction method used to support the buzzword sprinkle ... blah, blah, blah.

  8. DownUndaRob

    Ancient news..

    >man vacation



    The command appeared in BSD 4.3


    And wikipedia tells me BSD4.3 was released June 1986.

    So that's 30 years ago...

    1. Nick Kew

      Re: Ancient news..



      vacation was developed by Eric Allman and the University of California,

      Berkeley in 1983.

      That's from . I'm struggling to find a source more definitive than that: google seems unhelpful in unearthing any real history.

      1. Roland6 Silver badge

        Re: Ancient news..

        >google seems unhelpful in unearthing any real history.

        Perhaps that is because we are looking at time before Google and the Internet when RTFM meant going to the bookcase and actually reading one or more of the 20+ volumes of documentation...

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Ancient news..

          Paper docs? We had man pages & the RFCs available online by the mid 1970s ... But yes, the goo-kids have zero concept of where TehIntraWebTubes came from.

      2. jake Silver badge

        Re: Ancient news..

        FWIW, vacation was originally one of many simple sh scripts. It existed in one form or another on every un*x system at every Uni I ever had anything to do with, starting in the mid 1970s. Allman saw a need and formalized/standardized it. IBM only got on board with the advent of AIX in the mid 1980s, after the pre-release of 4.3BSD (AIX had (and has) 4.3BSD code in it). IBM was a trifle late to the un*x party, thus me showing IBM engineers how it worked in roughly 1985 when AIX was still pilot build, or perhaps Alpha ...

      3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Ancient news..

        "vacation was developed by Eric Allman and the University of California, Berkeley in 1983."

        So, the patent has expired and now it's fair game again?

      4. mstreet

        Re: google seems unhelpful in unearthing any real history

        That's because they are still at stage one in their business cycle:

        Stage 1: Collect everyone's stuff, and become the go-to information source for everyone.

        Stage 2: Claim ownership of everything gathered in stage 1.

        Stage 3: Since we own it, history is ours to do with as we please.

        1. Number6

          Re: google seems unhelpful in unearthing any real history

          You'll be able to tell when we've reached stage 3 by searching for that seminal work by George Orwell, 2024.

  9. JustWondering

    Ummm ...

    Maybe someone should tell the Patent Office about this new thing called "google"? At least a couple of the 151,000,000 hits appear to be pertinent.

    1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      Re: Ummm ...

      It's the dreaded NIH (not invented here) syndrome. Google results would only confuse the issue, ditto with a Wikipedia entry with good footnotes.

      1. DownUndaRob

        Re: Ummm ...

        But, if vacation first appeared in BSD4.3, then it was created in California...

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Ummm ...

          By the time 4.3BSD was being worked on, BSD contributions were coming from all over the globe.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I feel old...

    I can remember when IBM was an IT^H^H^H accounting company and not a laughing stock...

    In defence of the person who filed he patent, if they were using Notes they probably did think they were inventing something new or improved...

  11. Bakker


    Sorry to spoil your fun, but did anyone actually read the patent rather than start a rant? In fact the patent doesn't protect "out off office emails". What it protects is a system which notes when a user says they will be away - start date, end date and a message. This is normally activated by the user in advance. Between that time and the start time, the system will send a message attached to any email giving this data. In fact the process is that the computer checks whether the current time is between activation time and absence start time (and not after start time!) and that the recipient had not already received such a message and then send out a message to say in advance that the writer will be absent in the future from x to y.

    Out of office systems normally work while the first person is away. This is an automated advance warning system which attached the message to an email i. e. by the way the writer is going to be away for these days - useful if you plan to reply later rather than directly.

    1. cloth

      Re: Spoilsport

      Ex-IBMer here with a few IBM patents under my belt. I was assuming that IBM hadn't re-invented the wheel and that this was just bad reporting. It's a nightmare trying to get a patent past the IBM system and its lawyers. They do not want to waste their time with any of the hundreds of would be inventors that fling nonsense at them all day long. There is a *very* rigorous process that weeds out the failures before they happen. So, you can bet your bottom dollar (pound in my case !) that the IBM patent has something significant/different in it.

      Thanks for reading the patent Bakker ! (not a fun thing to do in my experience).

    2. nijam Silver badge

      Re: Spoilsport

      > What it protects is a system which notes when a user says they will be away - start date, end date and a message

      Oh, a *calendar entry*. What a relief. No-one's ever thought of that before.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Spoilsport

        > Oh, a *calendar entry*. What a relief. No-one's ever thought of that before.

        Couldn't t you even be bothered to read to the end of the paragraph when someone else did the work of reading the patent and summarizing it for you?

    3. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Spoilsport

      I agree and if people (including the REG!) correctly read the Patent, it's clearly stated:



      "... Out of office is an optional feature provided by many of the popular electronic mail systems, especially by POP3 "

      So in summary, it's a Pre-Out of Office notification.

      1. Bob Rocket

        Re: Spoilsport

        'So in summary, it's a Pre-Out of Office notification.'

        good, I was afraid it would prevent my patent application for a Post-Out of Office notification that sends everyone on my lists an "I'm Back" message.

    4. Gobhicks

      Re: Spoilsport

      Spot on Bakker. Never let the truth get in the way of kicking Big Blue and/or the patent system. A "will-be-out-of-office-heads-up" system may or may not be worthy of a patent, but this story is just b******s.

  12. Spudley

    Okay, so we know that IBM is a big company that loves making patents. I get it that they might want to plump up the numbers with some junk patents. After all, they seem to be going for the record every year.

    The thing that baffles me though is that behind the big company and the targets, there must have been some individual who actually wrote this patent application. Someone who must surely have known that it wasn't actually a new thing that they'd invented. That person ought to be hanging their head in shame right now.

    To be honest, given the legal nature of patents, it really ought to be considered perjury to submit a patent application in the full knowledge that you didn't invent it.

  13. John G Imrie

    I've dug up RFC 3834

    Published in 2004, which mentions Out of Office responses.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What about telephone answer machines?

    They clearly do what out of office does and already have a patent.

  15. sniperpaddy


    This patent violates a basic rule of patent qualification called "Prior Art".

    This is beyond stupid and in the realms of incompetent / illegal.

  16. Chipist

    Easier solution, any patent application fees must be refunded if the patent is accepted. That way the patent office only gets paid if they reject the application. Might make the actually do some research to find a reason to reject.

  17. Captain Scarlet Silver badge

    out of office "agent"

    So they patented a function everyone hated in Lotus Domino and is no longer used?

    The out of office agent applied to the mail file which ran every 6 hours (or however the server was configured) always felt like a stupid idea. Bin the idea and stick with the current send a reply straight away so people don't email going "Are you there today?"

  18. Stevie


    Well at least this patent application was probably accompanied by a working model.

  19. JimmyPage

    Actually there is a tiny gem in there ...

    The suggestion that OOO is actually connected to the users calendar.

    It always struck me as odd that when you created an OOO appointment in Outlook it didn't automatically set OOO replies too.

    If it had, it might avoid the classic OOO fail where you email someone whose OOO has been left on a week after they got back.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Actually there is a tiny gem in there ...

      Why do I keep thinking I'm seeing an ASCII emoticon representation of Eccentrica Gallumbits. the far-famed triple-breasted whore of Eroticon Six.

  20. Bob Vistakin

    The Stick

    Filed specifically to take the piss out of the US patent system, the fact this was granted says all anyone needs to know about the quality of the system.

  21. Bucky 2

    No good faith

    What we have now is a situation where neither the patent office, nor patent holders are operating in good faith.

    Making the patent office document a good faith effort to investigate a filing is simple enough, but it has to be in tandem with the ability to exert an effective punishment against organizations that would try to game the system.

    How? I have no clue. I'm here to bitch, not solve problems.

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