We routinely receive inquiries regarding software patents that, at first glance, seem to protect ideas that have been around for a long time. A software developer recently expressed concern that Microsoft had been granted a patent for the UNDO function. This function has been a part of word processors for many years. "Surely it can't be possible for Microsoft to get a patent for that now?", the developer asked himself.
No, this is not possible. One of the requirements for obtaining a patent is that the invention is new. Microsoft applied for this particular patent in 2011, but there is no doubt that computer users have been fervently pressing 'CTRL-Z' to fix their typos since long before 2011. The mistaken impression that Microsoft had been granted a 'patent for UNDO' was probably caused by the description in the patent publication. Descriptions in patent publications often contain generic terms. This is particularly true for patent texts regarding software, as the texts often do not contain source code, but only a description of the invention in functional terms. In this example, the summary did indeed appear to describe the well-known UNDO function.
However, patent protection is not determined by the description, but rather by the patent claims. These are commonly found at the end of the patent text. Although patent texts are often quite general and vague, the claims detail exactly what the invention is. Note: this is concerning the claims of an issued patent. Patent applications are also published and contain claims, but these are generally much broader than the final claims in issued patents.
A closer look at the 'UNDO patent' claims shows us that the protection provided is nowhere near as broad as was initially feared. Instead of the UNDO function, the patent only protects a special kind of UNDO function that - in short - only allows a user to undo changes made while working on an online document together with others.
However, the example of the 'UNDO patent' should not lead you to believe that broad software patents can never be granted. This certainly does happen. In reality, however, (software) patent protection is often less broad than it appears to be at first sight. Instead of allowing seemingly broad software patents to catch you off guard, have a look into the actual protection granted by the patent with your patent attorney.
The 'UNDO patent' can be found here.