The next time you set up an auto-response in your e-mail client to let everyone know you’re going on vacation, you should thank IBM for inventing the radical feature. That, at least, is what the United States Patent and Trademark Office believes, as they have granted the company a patent for out-of-office messages. After some supposed criticism, IBM has been kind enough not to enforce the patent. I wonder if the USPTO will give them an exclusive license for using the color blue next. You might think that a patent examiner faced with a patent application on an out-of-office email system might look at some real out-of-office email solutions. But the examiner considered only patents and patent applications. The Patent Office spent years going back-and-forth on whether IBM’s claims where new compared to a particular 2006 patent application. But it never considered any of the many, many, existing real-world systems that pre-dated IBM’s application. To take just one example, the Patent Office never considered this detailed specification from 1998 (PDF) from IBM describing the out-of-office agent in Notes. Nor did it consider other well-known email features like scheduling and signatures. If the Patent Office had taken a peek at the real world, and applied a modicum of common-sense, it would have quickly rejected IBM’s claims.