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Patent 7,222,078 (USPTO) (one of the Lodsys patents), uses the term 'commodity' repeatedly throughout the patent, for example:

In an exemplary system, information is received at a central location from different units of a commodity.

Many of the claims are so generic because they use this term.

Is this a term that is defined in this patent, or is it a term that has a common legal definition?

As far as I can tell, the patent specifics are about software in a fax machine that lets you give feedback, but Lodsys is applying it to any software that gives feedback (which isn't defined either).

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I added a terminology since it's a tag which exists on most SE sites. It might or might not be a good idea to include definition as a synonym of it. I've seen sites with both tags and I think sites where they are synonyms. –  hippietrail Sep 6 '12 at 9:52
    
Actually, why the us20040177002 tag? That one doesn't seem to be mentioned in the question \-: –  hippietrail Sep 6 '12 at 17:54
    
@hippietrail It may not be appropriate to use the tag, but I added it because that's the publication number of this patent and adding it should add a link to the patent in the sidebar. (However, that feature hasn't been activated yet.) –  user41 Sep 6 '12 at 18:24
    
@JeremyBanks: Ah OK I gave it a tag wiki excerpt with the title of the patent.. I think it's pending (the edit not the patent) –  hippietrail Sep 6 '12 at 18:30
    
The us20040177002 tag is important because it shows the patent application as originally filed. –  Dennis Crouch Sep 21 '12 at 17:47
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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Absent some definition or example in the document itself, one must fall back on the “ordinary and plain meaning” of the term, which, as with all terms, is subject to interpretation and dispute.

Though it's tempting to say more than that, anything further would be misleading: how the “ordinary and plain meaning” of an undefined term is established will depend on the nature of the term, the context in which the term is used, the venue in which its meaning is being disputed, and the persuasiveness and expertise of the participants in the process.

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This answer probably correctly describes the first step of the procedure to determine an answer to the question, but unfortunately, does not actually proffer an answer the question. This is par for the course when asking a lawyer for advice on how to proceed but deeply troubling to anyone trying to understand the patent. –  carmogy Sep 20 '12 at 17:00
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The main body of the patent does not appear to actually define the term "commodity." However, the claims of the patent appear to give examples of a "commodity," such that these examples can be used to understand, i.e., define, what a "commodity" is in the context of the patent.

For example, the "commodity" is defined in the claims as follows:

Claim 6: "commodity" = telephone extension equipment
Claim 8: "commodity" = facsimile equipment
Claim 11: "commodity" = consumer television equipment
Claim 27: "commodity" = configured to store voice or sound information
Claim 28: "commodity" = configured to digitize voice or sound information
Claim 50: "commodity" = a demonstration unit

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One crazy thing about this particular patent is that the word "commodity" was not found anywhere in the original patent filing. –  Dennis Crouch Sep 21 '12 at 18:12
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The word "product", which is a synonym of "commodity", appears all over the original filing. I would guess that whoever authored the application chose the word "commodity" to mean "product", but without being constrained by the many uses of the word "product" in the original specification, thus giving them maximum wiggle room. –  carmogy Sep 22 '12 at 20:22
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Patently-o provides a good summary of the steps in order to determine what a term means. Starting with the plain meaning, commodity simply means "goods" or an "article of commerce." (see e.g., Merriam-Webster supporting this plain meaning). One can argue that the analysis should stop there, however the claims and specification (while never actually using the term commodity) add context around this term. Specifically, a "commodity" in claim 1 requires a user interface, a memory, and a communication element. Thus, it's clear that this just isn't any type of "good" but a narrower type of good.

Possibly, commodity could be construed (narrowly) as a tangible good (plain meaning) having a user interface, memory, and communication element. The other independent claims all recite, more or less, these aspects. Note: memory may be too much given that claim 60 does not require memory, but that may be splitting hairs given the minor importance in the ned.

Alternatively, the specification provides grounds for a broader construction that the term simply refers to electronic, consumer goods capable of data transmission (e.g., the examples of which are telephones, fax machines, and televisions). These devices all have a UI, memory, and communications means. With this construction, commodity would also cover laptops, desktops, tablets, etc.

In short, there's no "clear" answer for claim construction most of the time. Unless the description provides an explicit "definitions" sections. What you want to do is find a reasonable balance between being too narrow and being overly broad. The patentee should not be unnecessarily forced to adopt a construction that forecloses infringement, but should not be allowed to claim protection over devices that are clearly not relevant to the claim.

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This also raises the question of whether software is a commodity, since it is not tangible. Free software is not bought or sold, and commercial software is usually licensed rather than sold (and, is a contract a commodity?). If someone sells software for use on a computer, but the owner of the computer has no intention of ever selling the computer combination (for example, if it is used for running a web service), one could argue that is not a commodity either. If the software is copied onto a computer's disk but is not active, is it "part" of the commodity? –  carmogy Sep 22 '12 at 20:13
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