The patent dispute between online DVD rental rivals Netflix Inc. and Blockbuster Inc. not only pits two big-name competitors against each other, but it also highlights the ongoing debate over Internet business-method patents.

For years, Congress and legal scholars have argued over what sort of innovation qualifies for legal protection and whether patents should be issued for online business processes. Critics contend that most online processes currently winning patents are neither novel nor innovative. Worse, they argue, some of these patents are so broad that anyone is liable to end up infringing.