Microsoft flexes its muscles by patenting body

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 July, 2004, 12:00am

The satirical publication The Onion once portrayed Bill Gates patenting the numbers 1 and 0. Mr Gates was quoted as saying the move represented 'an unfortunate but necessary step to protect our intellectual property from theft and exploitation by competitors'.

In a case of life imitating lampoon, Microsoft has succeeded in patenting the human body as a computer network. To quote the wording of United States Patent 6,754,472, the company is the custodian of 'method and apparatus for transmitting power and data using the human body'.

Microsoft is planning to use the skin's sweat-aided conductivity to link a range of gadgets around the body, from watches and pagers to mobile phones and microphones.

Dennis Fernandez, a semiconductor and biotech expert at the Californian intellectual property firm Fernandez & Associates, highlighted a basic barrier.

'Probably the biggest technical issue pertains to the human body itself, since this complex environment is notoriously corrosive and unpredictable in terms of interfacing with conventional electronics and other medical devices.'

Mr Fernandez cited how many implanted biomedical devices needed heavy insulation from our tissue and bodily fluids. But he said he was certain people could be hooked up without hitches.

'This strategy of sending electronic signals through the human body actually merely emulates what each of our own bodies already does by sending various signals throughout our nervous system to control and sense things.'

Assuming Mr Fernandez is right and the patent can be exploited successfully, its integrity seems suspect. Indeed, 6,754,472 could be rapacious in the light of two technology legal precedents: Sir Tim Berners-Lee's saintly refusal to patent the World Wide Web and Tony Blair and Bill Clinton's decision to make DNA sequence information arising from the human genome project freely available in 2001.

Responding to Microsoft's coup, The Economist called the company 'that imperialist of the information-technology world'. The Times of India asked: 'Bill Gates owns your body?'

LinuxInsider said he owned your sweat, then accused Microsoft of patenting ever more basic principles and questioned how the firm was able to get away with it.

To find out if the hostility is warranted, the South China Morning Post consulted Steve Parmelee - developer of the strategic IP portfolio and director of nascent technologies at Motorola - now with Chicago law firm Fitch, Even, Tabin and Flannery. Mr Parmelee portrayed the patent as no big deal because the scope of any patent was limited to its specific claims, and Microsoft's 'does not overtly suggest an awe-inspiring land grab'.

On the contrary, he said, it was just one of many 'iterative' developments in the field of the human area network - for instance US Patent 6,047,163 describes a miniature radio equipped with a loop antenna that incorporates the body.

Steve Highlander, a biotech and chemical patenting specialist at international law firm Fulbright & Jaworski, also saw no grounds for condemnation. Mr Highlander depicted the patent as progress: the latest chapter in the evolution of manpower, asking: 'What's a bicycle do? Harness human power. What does a saw do? Harness human power? What does a shovel do...?' The patent is apparently as sound as a bike, saw or shovel because it recognises that, typically, during the working week, we occupy a chair for up to 10 hours a day.

Because we were energy factories emanating electrical energy, it made sense to tap that resource, Mr Highlander said. If networking the human body did prove a viable commercial enterprise, this could save millions or even billions of dollars in energy costs, he said. Better yet, the patent could result in reduced pollution.

He dismissed the fuss about it as 'much ado about nothing'.

However, even if implementing patent 6,754,472 is technically possible, honourable, environmentally desirable and a potential money-spinner, another issue remains. It is doubtful whether the 'wow factor' will outweigh the 'yuk factor'.

Who but tech fiends, fetishists and aspiring cyborgs will be prepared to tolerate an intimate interface that looks certain to entail electrodes? Anyone for torture?