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Many years ago (and for a relatively short time) I was a Patent Examiner in Australia. From my recollection shapes WERE NOT patentable. Australia has/had a designs Office to register particular designs but even there I don't believe you could register an oblong, not even one with a concentric internal oblong - representing the shape of an iPhone/iPad/what ever else.
I think that government down-sizing in all/most jurisdictions has forced Patent Offices to reduce staff levels to the point where now they can no longer do a thorough examination so they grant a patent application and let holders of "prior art" (similar previously granted patents) sue the new patent holder. In my day this was to be avoided.
Basically the article here is very good but alas I feel without more pressure on governments nothing will happen. Legislators need to be squeezed where it hurts, then they will respond.
Seems like a simple solution would be to quickly reject the stuff that is obviously ridiculous. Mega corps ask for patents in droves; if it is something they really care about, couldn't they just resubmit?
EDIT: shamefully I know very little, but I assume there is a minimial price to ask for a patent. As long as this is in place and not prohibitive for the average joe, then this idea seems like it would be viable. The alternative would be a "patent submission tax" for companies over a certain size. However, if there's one thing that seems to be true in the US, it is that large corps seem to get more government benefits than small corps (and not just through loop holes - also through the result of lobbying). Edited 2012-07-06 10:24 UTC
Wasn't it in Australia that after a lax patent reform, somebody successfully patented the wheel? Edited 2012-07-06 11:11 UTC