As if banks lacked enough to worry about, up comes the issue of intellectual property. Thanks to a two-year-old change in policy at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, people outside the banking industry now can patent business practices that banks have always taken for granted - everything from the way credit cards are processed to how checks are handled.

Both the banking industry and the patent office are waking up to this problem, and both seem to be taking steps to correct it. BITS, the technology arm of the Financial Services Roundtable, has set up a working group to study the issue and make recommendations. Officials of the U.S. Patent Office have acknowledged that some patents it has granted may be problematic in their breadth.

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