Whilst trawling the internet recently in an attempt to spoil the latest series of the family-friendly mega-hit Game of Thrones, I stumbled upon a worrying development from the real world. It is being widely-reported that all-pervasive custodian of your personal data, Google Inc, have been granted a patent which will prevent spoilers for the latest popular cultural landmarks from leaking from social media and into your consciousness. Aghast to find that I might be deprived of my ability to seem knowledgeable in polite society without having to divert the majority of my income to subscription-only television channels, I determined to find out more.
System and method for processing content spoilers
The patent granted to Google is US9,002,942. It is granted and in force in the US. If we have a little nose around, we also find that Google file an International patent application (PCT) claiming the same date of priority as US’942, and therefore we may see corresponding patents arising worldwide in due course.
So what exactly have Google obtained a monopoly for? In US’942, there are three independent claims: a method; a computer program product; and a system. If we concentrate on the method, we see that there is:
A method comprising:
receiving activity data describing an activity performed by a first user;
determining a first progress stage for a subject associated with the activity based at least in part
on the activity data;
receiving content data published by a second user;
determining whether the content data includes a spoiler for the first user based at least in part on the first progress stage;
responsive to determining that the content data includes the spoiler, obscuring the content data published by the second user from the first user;
generating a spoiler warning indicating that the obscured content data includes the spoiler; and
providing the spoiler warning to the first user.
Seven critical steps are provided, which apparently add up to a new method which is both novel and inventive over prior technology. In short, this method amounts to:
I watch Game of Thrones Episode 1
It is determined that I have watched Episode 1
My friend tweets about Episodes 1 to 10
It is determined that the tweets contain spoilers beyond Episode 1
Spoilers are censored
Spoiler warning is raised
I am alerted to the presence of a spoiler
A relatively straightforward method, in truth; so simple, in fact, that one has to query whether or not this is indeed an invention at all.
The critical feature would appear to be the determination of the relative knowledge that I, the spoilee, may have of the show, and therefore that the obscuring of the spoilers is responsive to my knowledge. It is also important that the content data from the second person, that is, my friend having seen all of the episodes previously, is published.
If a person is merely talking about the show but self-censoring spoilers, the spoilers are never published, even if the other person already knows which episodes I have viewed. A pre-implemented ‘spoiler warning’ on an online article is also not responsive to my actual knowledge of the show, even though the spoilers are publicly available. In this regard, it does indeed seem that even though the method is simple, there are sufficiently distinctive features present which warrant the grant of the patent.
Where does this leave everyone else?
Where does this patent leave products on the market which already provide spoiler blocking functionality, such as SpoilerShield. The priority date of US’942 is 8 October 2012 – the SpoilerShield app is first promoted as ‘coming soon’ via its blog on 12 August 2013.
The SpoilerShield appears to act responsively to the knowledge of a user, in that the user might turn on the shielding functionality for different television shows. It then actively blocks spoilers for the selected shows. Would such an app fall foul of the above method claim? Potentially, though the first progression stage as claimed may not necessarily be present in the methodology of the SpoilerShield, which seems to have binary on/off switches to activate and deactivate shields.
The SpoilerShield appears to be predated by Google’s patent. However, even a cursory internet search can reveal that people were attempting to block spoilers prior to 8 October 2012 – this Lifehacker article from 22 February 2012 even goes into some detail as to methods of doing so. Could such an article be used to invalidate US’942? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Could it come here?
We know that Google have applied for an International patent application; could they feasibly obtain grant of a patent in the UK or Europe, for instance?
If, as we have determined, the nominally clever portion of the invention relates to the determination of the first progress stage for the subject based on the activity data, then this is defined within the claim by determining a first progress stage for a subject associated with the activity based at least in part on the activity data.
The foreseeable problem here is that the claim is silent on how this should be achieved; there is seemingly no technical feature in the claim which relates to this inventive portion. Without a technical feature in the claim which would allow the skilled person to carry out the inventive concept, it runs the risk of being classified as a method for doing business or performing a mental act, and therefore excluded from patentability.
Whether a UK or European Patent Examiner would agree is another matter, but I would anticipate that the claim would need to be narrowed significantly in order to be allowable in either jurisdiction.
What about me?
What have I learned from my investigations? Potentially a little more about what Google spend their time thinking about. More importantly, however, that researching an article about what protecting the world from spoilers is likely to lead to you reading a lot of spoilers in the process.