The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments today in a case involving Internet auctioneer eBay Inc. that is testing the methods patent owners use to protect their inventions. 2

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments today in a case involving Internet auctioneer eBay Inc. that is testing the methods patent owners use to protect their inventions.

In a dispute that’s part of a broader debate over the future of the patent system, some U.S. Supreme Court justices suggested Wednesday that the patent at the heart of a suit against eBay may be too vague and trivial to even be taken seriously.

During oral arguments that lasted about an hour, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that if eBay’s “Buy it Now” feature could be patented, “then maybe A&P could patent its process for a supermarket.”

Patent holder MercExchange sued eBay in September 2001, accusing it of patent infringement through the “Buy it Now” feature, which allows shoppers to halt the auction process and purchase items at a fixed price. A federal appeals court sided with MercExchange and granted it an injunction against eBay. The injunction is currently on hold.

Chief Justice John Roberts drew laughter from the usually taciturn court audience when he made a quip about his interpretation of MercExchange’s patent. “It’s displaying pictures of your wares on a computer monitor and picking the ones you want. I might be able to do that.

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