If anyone still wonders whether the U.S. patent system is broken, or whether people and companies will step up to ever-higher levels of idiocy, stop wondering. Microsoft has patented the emoticon.

That’s right, the little smiley in your e-mail message or on your instant-messaging client is now under the jurisdiction of Microsoft. Technically they don’t own the characters themselves (although heaven knows if they’re working on that too) but rather the transmission and reconstruction of the smiley face graphic. Wow, that’s sure innovative!

Mark Taylor, executive director of the Open Source Consortium, says:

“I would have expected to see something like this suggested by one of our more immature community members as a joke on Slashdot, and probably would have chuckled at the absurdity of the notion. We now appear to be living in a world where even the most laughable paranoid fantasies about commercially controlling simple social concepts are being outdone in the real world by well-funded armies of lawyers on behalf of some of the most powerful companies on the planet.”