Stating the Obvious?


Over at OnLamp, Jason Cole yesterday suggested that we should assemble a massive, public database of all the “obvious” ideas we can think of as a defense against such joys as the Blackboard asspatent.

I’m reminded of a scene that’s appeared in more bad science fiction than I care to admit to consuming: a time traveller returns to their present after some sort of mission, and must then rattle off all of the obvious, meaningless facts that they can come up with, so that the government/corporation/cabal can check those facts to verify that the timeline wasn’t inadvertently changed by the mission. Needless to say, this rarely works:

Time Traveller: …ice melts at 32 degrees, and Hal Patterson holds the CFL record for the most consecutive 100+ yard receiving regular season games, set in 1956.

Scientist One: Great, everything checks out, looks like there were no timeline changes at all. Okay, if you could just lie down on the altar here…?

Time Traveller: Um, sorry, what?

Scientist Two: The altar. You know, where we ritually sacrifice all returning time travellers to Cthulhu to show our thanks. Just lie down here…

Time Traveller: No, no — something’s gone horribly wrong! This isn’t how it’s supposed to be! This isn’t — aaaarrrrrrrrgh!

Scientist One: Funny how they always say that, isn’t it?

Fade out.

It’s actually a lot harder than one might think to state the really, really obvious: ask someone to state the most obvious thing they can think of. Then sit down with the beverages of your choice and talk through the assumptions that underly whatever their answer was — the ones that are so obvious that they didn’t realize they were making them. It’ll be a surprisingly big list.

(Seriously, do this. It makes for some interesting conversations.)

Pre-one click patent, would it have occurred to anyone that “minimizing the amount of effort required for a customer to purchase a product via a Web site” was an obvious idea in need of defense? Given that the patent covers a specific implementation of this larger idea, would it have been obvious that the specific implementation would have to be noted as…um, obvious?

I would have thought that combining anti-asspatent activism with big database fun would be like chocolate and peanut butter for me, but I just don’t buy this one.