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This Patent Application received a non-final rejection by the US Patent Office! An initial rejection is part of the typical course of a patent application.

The rejection was based in part on prior art found by Ask Patents community below! The first two references cited by the Patent Examiner were found by Ask Patents.

Thanks to YOU, the Ask Patents community, overly-broad claims have at least been narrowed. Follow @askpatents to block more overly-broad patent applications.

AN OVERBROAD PATENT ON self-destructing email - This application from AT&T seeks to patent the idea of...electronic mail which deletes itself after a specific period of time has elapsed and warns sender if it recipient is outside the sender's email domain (where self-destruction presumably cannot be assured)! 10 minutes of your time can help narrow US patent applications before they become patents. Follow @askpatents on twitter to help.

QUESTION - Have you seen anything that was published before 1/9/2002 that discusses:

  • self-destructing email

If so, please submit evidence of prior art as an answer to this question. We welcome multiple answers from the same individual.

EXTRA CREDIT - A reference to anything that meets all of the criteria to the question above AND ALSO prohibits forwarding or copying the email into another application (such as a word processor) or which warns the sender if it is being sent outside to a recipient outside the sender's email domain

TITLE: Self-destructing email

Summary: [Translated from Legalese into English] A method for sending email which identifies a time period after which the email destroys itself.

  • Publication Number: US 20130159436 A1
  • Application Number: US 13/690,555
  • Assignee: AT&T
  • Prior Art Date: Seeking prior Art predating 1/9/2002
  • Open for Challenge at USPTO: Open through 12/17/2013

Claim 1 requires each and every step below:

A method for transmitting self-destructing electronic mail messages comprising:

  1. receiving a request, at an electronic mail server, from a sender to send a self-destructing electronic mail message, the request identifying a time period after which the self-destructing electronic mail message is to be destroyed;

  2. sending a security warning to the sender when an electronic mail address of an intended recipient of the self-destructing electronic mail message is located beyond a home domain of the sender;

  3. sending the self-destructing electronic mail message to the electronic mail address of the intended recipient in response to input from the sender responsive to the security warning;

4.deleting any instances of the self-destructing electronic mail message that are being stored at the electronic mail server after the sending and after expiration of the time period.

In English this means:

A method for sending self-destructing email, comprising:

  1. Sender specifies time period after which email self-destructs

  2. Warn sender if recipient email address is outside home domain (where self-destruction presumably cannot be assured)

  3. Send the self-destructing email

  4. Delete the email after expiration of the time period specified by sender

Good prior art would be evidence of a system that did each and every one of these steps prior to 1/9/2002

You're probably aware of ten pieces of art that meet this criteria already... separately, the applicant is claiming self-destructing email which is prohibited from being forwarded or copied into an application

"email which is time-limited from the Applicant"

What is good prior art? Please see our FAQ.

Want to help? Please vote or comment on submissions below. We welcome you to post your own request for prior art on other questionable US Patent Applications.

  • 1
    Microsoft Rights Management Services (RMS) was available before 2002 and do pretty much the same (Don't remember if allowed self-destruct of the email) Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 21:17
  • 1
    Microsoft had self destructing email at least as early as 1994 as part of their Exchange product. I worked at Microsoft and was a member of the team. Commented Oct 9, 2013 at 1:46
  • I doubt that Microsoft originated this concept, pretty much everything to do with email was developed back in the 60's. and since the military was an early user of email I'd be very surprised if they did not already have these abilities long ago. Commented Oct 9, 2013 at 2:13

7 Answers 7


According to a round-up published by Forbes in September 2000, Disappearing Inc, Zixmail, and Ziplip.com all offered self-destructing email services from well before the prior art cutoff for the present filing.

Disappearing Inc:

In our tests, Disappearing E-mail was easy to use and worked well as long as we were using Microsoft Outlook. One message we sent was set to expire after less than 30 minutes and did in fact expire.


As with Disappearing E-mail, the encrypted message is stored on Zixmail servers and expires after the number of days the sender chooses.


A Web-based mail service, Mountain View, Calif.-based ZipLip.com also offers the option to set the expiration time for secure e-mail.

All three services therefore anticipate the limitiations in sections 1, 3 and 4 of claim 31 in the present filing. Missing is the step in section 2.

  • 1
    There is no "claim 31.1", etc. Each claim is taken as a whole. To "anticipate" (a technical term) claim 31 some single prior art system would need to do every step of claim 31.
    – George White
    Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 15:58
  • Hi George: thanks for the comment. However according to the USPTO: “When a claim covers several structures or compositions, either generically or as alternatives, the claim is deemed anticipated if any of the structures or compositions within the scope of the claim is known in the prior art.” Brown v. 3M, 265 F.3d 1349, 1351, 60 USPQ2d 1375, 1376 (Fed. Cir. 2001). Does that not provide flexibility for partial invalidation of a claim?
    – JoeG
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 7:36
  • I've modified the above wording in line with your comment.
    – JoeG
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 7:42
  • 1
    That covers a different case. If a claim says it can be made from wood or plastic or metal then that part of the claim is fullfiled by any single one of those things. The more expansive the claim, the wider the universe of things that can knock it out are.
    – George White
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 15:54

Here is a similar idea of email having an expiration date from Outlook 2000: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/196072

Also, here's how to prevent the recipient from forwarding email in Outlook 2000: http://windowssecrets.com/forums/showthread.php/13550-prevent-forward-of-specific-e-mail-%28Outlook-2000%29

  • 1
    those abilities have been there since at least 1994 when I was a member of the exchange team. I forget which version we were working on but that functionality may even be older than 1994. pretty much everything that you can think of to do with email was already thought of back in the 60's and 70's. Commented Oct 9, 2013 at 2:25

From way back in August 1999, the 1on1mail.com service offered self-destructing email. According to a report by Australia's ABC News at the time:

...Global Markets Research, a London-based company, has given its 1on1mail service an added security feature called autoshredder, which allows the user to set the e-mail to delete itself from the recipient's computer a specified amount of time after being opened.


To make sure the messages arrive safely, the company has designed the 1on1mail package as a secure network within the wider network of the Internet--a "client-based application". This ensures that the route is always secure, says technical director Steven James.

And to guarantee that the messages self-destruct as planned, the package also prevents recipients from performing certain actions that would undermine security. "You can't just cut and paste out of it, that would be pointless," says James.

The 1999 invention was also covered by:

The 1999 invention therefore directly anticipates and invalidates paragraphs 1, 3 and 4 of claim 31 of the present filing.

The statement by Stephen James that "You can't just cut and paste out of it" also invalidates claim 35 of the present filing ("35. The method of claim 32 wherein the prohibited operation comprises copying contents of the self-destructing electronic mail message into a memory and pasting the contents of the self-destructing electronic message from the memory into a new document.")


Official USPTO Prior Art

This Patent Application received a non-final rejection by the US Patent Office! The rejection was based in part on prior art found by Ask Patents community in this answer!

Patent WO 1998058321 A1 filed in 1998 describes a "Self-destructing document and e-mail messaging system" which "automatically destroys documents or e-mail messages at a predetermined time by attaching a macro or virus to the document or e-mail message."

Does this qualify as prior art?

  • Since it is in the same field and was published before the priority date of the application it is clearly available to use as prior art. The question is how good a prior art reference it is. It does not seem to describe a system that distinguishes between emails guanteeed to be erased and those outside the reach of the technology whose erasure can not be guaranteed.
    – George White
    Commented Sep 15, 2013 at 17:55
  • @GeorgeWhite : in the initial rejection, the examiner answers your question: "It would have been obvious for one of ordinary skill in the art to combine the teaching of Udell and Ogilvie because Ogilvie's teaching would allow the system of Udell to provide the sender a notification..." This seems a good justification for stackexchange contributors posting partial prior art matches, as in this case, a partial match may be part of an obvious combination with other prior art which together anticipates all claims.
    – JoeG
    Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 6:27
  • @JoeG I think you are correct that Ask a Patents can take a lot of credit for this. In a quick look at the examiner's search strategy and results I didn't see that this reference popped up on any of the listed searches. One point of patent terminology - we use "anticipated" when a single reference describes everything in a claim. "Obliviousness" comes from multiple things + an argument being put together to reach all aspects of a claim.
    – George White
    Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 17:16

Services similar to BurnNote and PrivNote comprise of:-

  1. the sender specifying the time period after which the elctronic message (not email, albeit something that achieves the same purpose) self-destructs;
  2. warning the sender if recipient email address is outside home domain (where self-destruction presumably cannot be assured), i.e., the website HTTPS access system;
  3. sending the self-destructing electronic message (well, storing it in a database would've been more appropriate);
  4. permanently deleting the message after expiration of the time period specified by the sender;

I recognize that this not-even-half-baked answer without citation or sources should rather have been a comment to be pursued by someone who thought they could turn this into an example of 'good' prior art, but I couldn't fit it in one so sorry.

  • 2
    According to the Internet Archive, BurnNote dates from 2012: web.archive.org/web*/burnnote.com and PrivNote dates from 2008 web.archive.org/web*/privnote.com Therefore neither are applicable examples of prior art for this filing, which requires prior art prior to Jan 2002.
    – JoeG
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 8:49
  • @JoeG You are correct. Do you want to edit my answer to indicate to people that it may not be relevant anymore? Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 11:37

The application doesn't explain exactly how an auto-delete would be implemented. For example, this could be done with JavaScript or an extra MIME header such as "Delete-After". But JavaScript usually gets stripped from incoming email by the client program and/or mail server for security reasons, and there is no such header as "Delete-After" in the email specification.

Web services for sending auto-delete messages already exist.

  • 1
    None of the services referred to in the raymond.cc link are applicable prior art: all are many years later than the relevant date (Jan 2002). According to the internet archive, destructingmessage.com is from 2006. BurnNote is from 2012. Quickforget.com is from 2011. Cloakmy.org is from 2013.
    – JoeG
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 8:57
  • burnnote is actually from 2006 (still not old enough). you can't use the internet archive to determine how old something is, all you can learn is when they first started scanning it. things can be much older than when they are first scanned/archived. Commented Oct 9, 2013 at 2:09

The services listed after 2002 does not negate them as prior art. It is necessary to request records from those services to indicate when it was that they began developing their service. If the companies have records indicating the beginning of development prior to and at the same time as AT&T filed it's claim, then that should constitute valid prior art. Otherwise, those companies intellectual property becomes jeopardized with the issuing of a patent.

  • Prior, in this context, means something published before a patent application was filed. Novel means new relative to what was publicly known. There is an exception for an earlier filed application that is eventually published. It's filing date sets its prior art effectivity date even though it was not available to the public at that point. Yes if two people are developing the same thing and one of the finishes and applies for a patent while the other quietly keeps working on it for two more years then one wins and the other looses.
    – George White
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 5:42

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