Patently absurd

I saw this list of patents on the back of something I bought recently:


(click for larger image)

That is 40 patents, with 28 in the US alone and “other U.S. and foreign patents pending”. But it isn’t a flying car, a teleporter or a death ray. It is a child’s toy that blows bubbles.



It can blow bubbles within bubbles, which is quite neat, and its includes the weasel words “One or more of [the] following patents apply”. But still, 40 patents?

Patents have also got rather out of hand in the software world. The Amazon patent on “1-click ordering” is one of the more flagrant examples. This patent is now being challenged, but such a trivial patent should never have been granted in the first place. I am decidedly uneasy about the whole concept of patenting software. Software is closer to literature and mathematics than it is to invention, and it makes no sense to patent literature or mathematics. Copyright protection seems adequate to me. But, even if we allow that some forms of software innovation might be patentable, its serves no-one’s interests (apart from the lawyers) to allow trivial patents.

The companies that apply for these patents are only partly to blame. If ridiculous patents are being granted companies will inevitably have to join in to provide some protection against the patent portfolios of their competitors. Most of the blame has to lie with the institutions granting the patents and the US patent office seems to be far and away the worst offender. If the US patent office doesn’t have the resources and expertise to evaluate software patents then it should acquire the resources and expertise, and soon. The purpose of patents should be to foster innovation, not to stifle it.


7 thoughts on “Patently absurd

  1. Stephane Grenier

    What’s even sadder is that there are companies out there that exist solely to make money from patents. They acquire (or buy) patents for the sole purpose of extracting money from others.

    I personally know of one person who had a short term contract with a company that did just this. They had him scan through piles and piles of possible patents to see if he could quickly come up with infringements. No more than a few minutes per.

    This was the first round, then they would bring it to the next round, and so on. With the eventual goal to make money. And he wasn’t exactly cheap either, so there is money being made there.

  2. Stephane Grenier

    Another thing I remember reading was where some of these “patent companies” would only contact smaller companies, companies who didn’t really have the resources to fight back. And rather than sue them they would offer them an out with an out of court “settlement”. Something is better than nothing.

    They would also be very careful to avoid the larger companies who could fight back so that the patent wouldn’t lose it’s potency. Because once a larger company devoids the patent of any enforcement value, they had no leg to stand on other than a very forceful letter.

    So here you have these companies attacking smaller companies to extract out of court settlements because they can’t really defend themselves. I remember it came to my attention because one small company who had been hassled several times (probably because he became known as an easy target) got tired of it. He somehow found out about other companies that were targeted similarly and got them to align together and fight back the main company trying to sue them for patent infringements. I wish I could remember the source, it was a very interesting read…

    In any case, this certainly doesn’t foster innovation, it stifles it! What a waste of time and resources as a whole for society.

  3. Andy Brice Post author


    Thats really scummy, bordering on racketeering. Unfortunately the lawyers seem to run the world now (the US anyway). I would prefer a world run by engineers and innovators. Come back Victorians, all is forgiven.

  4. Jivlain

    I think the Victorians are all down here in Australia :)

    For the record, the “patent companies” are generally referred to as “patent trolls”.

    The literature analogy is quite apt.

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