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Friday, September 03, 2004

Silly Patents

Last night, I attended a seminar on Intellectual Property Management & Licensing by Kevin Murphy of Sandia National Laboratories. He covered lots of nitty-gritties of IP related issues. First of all here is a bit of history.

The first patent was issued in 1449 by the British. The story goes something like this. A glass blower in Italy was on a business trip to England. However, he wondered that if I go and teach his art of glass-blowing to someone in England, then he will lose his business to his competitors. So, he approached the monarch about his problem. The monarch wrote a letter saying that so and so person will teach those interested in learning the art of glass blowing on the condition that the students will not practice this art for a certain specified period, during which any glass-blowing to be done will be performed by the Italian glass-blower. Anyone found glass-blowing apart from the Italian glass-blower will face punishment. The monarch, then, signed the authorization. Thus, came into being a patent. The first US patent was given in 1790. Thomas Jefferson reviewed the patent, and then had president Washington sign it. The right to patent is mentioned in the US constitution, too.

In US, the first person to invent gets the patent rights, if accepted. In Japan, the first person to file the patent gets the rights to the patent. So, in Japan, if you missed your train, since there was a traffic jam, you lose your right to patent.

Many times, people don't realize that such and such invention can be patented. And, then, someone jumps on the technology, and patents it taking all the laurels, and money, associated with it. In few cases, the lack of a patent on the invention makes it available to the whole world. One such example is the clean-room technology. The first laminar flow hood was made by a personnel in the Sandia National Laboratories. However, the inventor didn't have a clue that he can patent in the laminar flow hood. On the contrary, he went about explaining his laminar flow hood to all he can meet, to the extent that he presented in quite a number of conferences. When others in industry came to know about the laminar flow hood, it was quickly adopted in the microelectronics industry, the medical industry, etc. Another such example is the video recording. Another student in the class said that the video recording technology was invented by Sandia National Laboratories, but patented by some other firm later on.

Towards the end, the speaker mentioned about 'Silly Patents'.

Silly patents are patents that are, well, silly. He handed out a few such silly patents, which I have listed below. Reading the titles, I think, one can guess why are such patents called 'Silly Patents'.

So, enjoy the list, do let me know of more such silly patents, though there should websites which list these.

Method of Concealing Partial Baldness, US Patent # 4,022,227, Granted on May 10, 1977: Divide the hair which is still present on your head into three sections, and use one of them to cover the bald area. It has 5 claims and 6 drawing figures. Trust me, there should be a lot of people out there accused of infringement of this patent.

Flashing Ear-ring Heartbeat Monitor, US Patent # 6,277,079, Granted on Aug 21, 2001: The ear-ring has an IR LED, which flashes when the person wearing that ear-ring is excited - this is one of the suggested use. Another use is for medical monitoring of patients. I wonder, which was the dominant application of this invention.

Method of Exercising a Cat, US Patent # 5,443,036, Granted on Aug 22, 1995: Shine a laser pointer on the floor and make your cat to follow it as you move the pointer. Nifty, isn't it?

Method of Swinging on a Swing, US Patent # 6,368,227, Granted on Apr 09, 2002: Well, let's see; the last time, I used a swing was definitely before April 2002.

Thumb Sleeve for Thumb Wrestling Game, US Patent # 6,704,937, Granted on Mar. 16, 2004 No comments!!!

When asked why do people file such patents, the speaker answered that the cost of filing a patent was very less 20 years ago. That was when a bunch of people started filing patents in hordes. When the government realized this, they started increasing the cost of filing a patent. Currently, the cost of filing a patent is around $1,600. Still, some file such silly patents; one of the obvious reason for people spending money on such patent applications is just that they got too much money to spend.

But, trust me, such silly patents do make an otherwise dull patents and articles reading more interesting.


Blogger Aditya said...

patents are often content specific, and application specific. and the patent authors try to cover as much as they can ... which is one of the reasons why they are so vague - because they areintended to have as broad a scope as possible.

if you develop a certain drug molecule - you cannot generally stop anyone from making that molecule at all ... but you could define the use of that molecule in a particular context in your patent. for example you may patent molcule A for certain medical applications, but i doubt if the patent holders can prevebt you from using it, for example as an ingredient of detergent ... unless they specifically covered that context

vow - that was almost a post by itself ..

2:21 PM  
Blogger SBR said...

Aditya, your explanation is, indeed, correct.

However, the doubt which we had in mind was why do people spend money on filing these so called 'silly patents'.


3:28 PM  
Blogger Prashant said...

I heard of this interesting potential filing recently.

A company a collegue of mine works with has filed a patent for specifying their product on the basis of certain parameters. They took different product grades, made certain measurements of different parameters and then patented that method of defining the product.

Now if you are a company that makes that same product and want to define your grades with that calculation/measurement you need to pay royalty to this company.

Think of it this way, I produce cricket bats. Now I make different grades of cricket bats. Some have long handles, some have thick blades, some have hollow blades and some others have curved blades. I use a combination of parameters to determine the performance of these cricket bats, say A, B, C and D. Then I specify each cricket bat on the basis of these 4 parameters. One bat might have (A,B,C,D)=(1,3,2,4) and another might have the parameters (5,1,2,3) and so on.

I patent this method of defining the grades of cricket bats. Now if you are another manufacturer and want to specify the grades in this manner, you have to pay me a royalty.

Pretty interesting haan?

10:07 PM  
Blogger Prashant said...

If you are interested in Copyrights and their origins and their effects in modern technology, Larry Lessig's book is a wonderful read. It is available for free online. Here is a link to various versions of the book.


10:11 PM  

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