Ever since the US Patent and Trademark Office issued its first patent for a fertilizer ingredient called potash in 1790, it's seen its fair share of dumb ideas. From bong-powered vibrators to airplane seats filled with sedatives, the archives of the USPTO serve as a testament to the reckless spirit of American innovation. Although one would expect the steady accumulation of terrible ideas to lead to more judicious patent granting at the USPTO, things have only gotten worse since 'ol George Washington signed off on the first patent 225 years ago—so bad, in fact, that Congress has found it necessary to propose a number of bills in recent years to stem the rising tide of dumb ideas.
Although the patents being targeted by Congress aren't quite as dumb as using centrifugal force to launch a newborn from its mother's womb, they are a part of a growing systemic problem in the US known as patent trolling. The patent troll is a pretty scummy creature whose main m.o. is to stockpile patents, not for the sake of actually making anything with them, but solely for the purpose of extorting money from other companies for patent infringements. As you can probably imagine, most of the patents held by patent trolls (known as 'non-practicing entities' in legal jargon) are pretty dumb or trivial (take Amazon's patent on white-background photography, for instance), but nevertheless patent trolling now accounts for 67 percent of all patent lawsuits filed in the US.
The rise of patent trolling has led a number of companies, including Google and Facebook, to put pressure on Congress to do something about it, but so far, all proposed patent trolling bills have failed to gain traction. Yet not all is lost in the fight against dumb patents. In a more flippant attack on idiotic innovation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has taken it upon itself to bestow a new idea with a 'Stupid Patent of the Month Award' since 2014, to highlight the urgent need for patent reform in the US.
So without further ado, here are the EFF's nominations for the 11 stupidest patents of 2015:
JANUARY: Updating Grass in Video Games
This patent is for a "Method and System for Increased Realism in Video Games," which its owner, a patent troll called White Knuckle, has used to file a lawsuit against Electronic Arts for infringing on its invention in January. This idea is patently ridiculous (ha!) because it takes a bunch of ideas that are entirely banal (computers, video games, and updating software from a server) and somehow created a patent out of it.
Many video games, particularly those of the sporting variety, take real life events and update their games to reflect them. In essence, White Knuckle patented remotely updating software, using specific instances like updating the grass in a stadium, as grounds for the legitimacy of its patent, a move the EFF likens to drawing a distinction between an invention for a car driven in San Francisco and a car driven in Los Angeles.
FEBRUARY: Whatever a Transaction Security Apparatus is
This month's stupid patent belongs to Joao Block Transaction Systems, a company associated with patent attorney Raymond Joao, who according to the EFF has made quite a name for himself filing weak lawsuits against companies for patent infringement and leveraging the high cost of going to court in his favor. The patent in question is for a "Transaction Security Apparatus," which is just as vague as the title would lead you to believe.
The patent is full of generic sounding ideas for things such as "a processing device" that "processes information regarding a banking transaction" and "generates a signal containing information for authorizing or disallowing the transaction." Moreover, the patent ends with an astounding 424 claims (every patent has at least one claim, which establishes the boundaries of the patent—the average number of claims is about 20), most of which are trivial variations on the Transaction Security Apparatus. While this makes for tedious reading, it's a great legal move, allowing Joao to "game the system" by continually raising patent infringement claims based on different claims after other claims have previously been dismissed in court. Although Joao has already earned the coveted Stupid Patent of the Month Award for his audacious patents, I would like to nominate him for the illustrious title of King of the Patent Trolls as well—you've earned it, Joao.
MARCH: GPS nonsense
GPS technology has been around since the 70s, but it really only became commercially available on a wide scale in the 1990s. This resulted in a number of GPS-related patents, one of them being for the "Method and apparatus for an automatic vehicle location, collision notification, and synthetic voice." What is notable about this patent is the fact that it just makes up a bunch of words and devolves into nonsense phrasing, leaving one to wonder what the fuck a "Location Comparator-Indicator Module" might be.
Yet this is precisely the point. This nonsense phrasing allowed the owner of the patent, NovelPoint Tracking, to sue over 90 companies for infringement, likely because no one could really understand just what NovelPoint was patenting because of the phrasing. This lawsuit spree most recently included fast food franchises such as Subway, which was taken to court in March for allegedly using NovelPoint technology in its mobile phone application.
APRIL: Updating Delivery Information
The EFF wants to invite you on a thought experiment: "Imagine you're on your way to deliver a case of beer to a party. Before you get there, your boss sends you a text: They want 2 cases now. You read the text while driving…so you deliver an extra case when you arrive. Having successfully completed that task, you leave for your next delivery." In this scenario, besides being a standup delivery person, you're also likely to get sued for patent infringement by Eclipse IP, one of the most renowned patent trolls around. In April, Eclipse filed a patent for a method of updating delivery information. According to the EFF, this is an especially stupid patent because the USPTO issued the patent after a federal court invalidated a number of other Eclipse patents in the same family in 2014.
MAY: The Entire 705 Patent Class
The EFF couldn't narrow down this month's award to just one stupid idea, so they gave it to a whole class of them known as 705 patents. Every Tuesday, the USPTO publishes the Patent Gazette, which breaks down all the new patents issued that week. The patents are grouped by type, and Class 705 patents are for "Data Processing: financial, business practice, management, or cost/price determination." This was a particularly bad week for class 705, which included patents for: efficiently processing telephone orders, changing how many times an advertisement is shown to viewers, analyzing consumer behavior for ideal marketing strategies, and many other incredibly stupid and mundane patents.
JUNE: Patenting the Firewall
In 2000, a patent was filed for something called "service level computer security" for a system of "filtering data packets" by "extracting the source, destination, and protocol information," and "dropping the received data packet if the extracted information indicates a request for access to an unauthorized service." It was, in essence, a patent for a computer firewall, an idea which long predated the patent.
It was a stupid patent, and I guess its owner knew that because they let the patent expire in 2012. But in January of this year, a patent troll company called Wetro Lan purchased the patent and quickly began filing dozens of lawsuits against pretty much every company in the network security biz. This was possible because patents can be filed against infringements dating back 6 years, so even though the patent was expired, Wetro Lan was able to sue these companies for infringements from 2009-2012, thereby earning them the EFF's illustrious Stupid Patent of the Month award for June.
JULY: Patenting the Internet of Dildos
Earlier in the year, a company named Tzu Technologies began suing sex toy manufacturers for infringing on their patent for a "Method and Device for Interactive Virtual Control of Sexual Aids Using Digital Computer Networks". This is kind of bizarre because the idea of computer controlled sex toys—called teledildonics—has been around for decades. Yet according to Tzu Technologies' patent, any stimulation system using a microphone, stereo speakers, and radio waves for remote, computer-based sex is liable to get sued for infringement. This, in essence, means that Tzu Tech has patented the entire field of teledildonics. So I stand with the EFF when I say: Free the Internet of Dildos from Tzu Technologies' tyrannical grasp!
AUGUST: The Internet of Product Mixers
This month's patent was filed by a noted patent troll called Rothschild Connected Devices Innovations, which owns a family of patents for mixing products using the internet. Originally filed in 2006, the patent is strikingly mundane, and according to the EFF wasn't even a new idea back when Rothschild filed it. The idea is to allow users to create custom products by mixing pre-existing liquids or solids together (the patent uses shampoos and beverages as examples). This is a pretty core application for the internet of things and as the EFF rightly points out, granting Rothschild this patent is like allowing "the inventor of the Segway…to own 'any thing that moves in response to human commands.'"
SEPTEMBER: The EFF did not grace us with a stupid patent this month, so here's a stupid patent for filming a yoga class.
OCTOBER: Putting Data Onto a Computer
So this idea isn't from 2015, but it's so stupid that the EFF found it worthy of an award 12 years after it was originally granted a patent. The idea is to put data about the ideal trolling depths for various fishing lures onto a computer. Yup, that's pretty much it. The company filing for the patent, Precision Trolling, had already made a habit of compiling this fishing data in books, but then someone had the brilliant idea to put the information from these books on a computer and make it searchable. The USPTO found this ingenious idea nonobvious enough to warrant a patent, which now lives in the archives as patent no. 7,113,449. Trolling, indeed.
NOVEMBER: Prison Telecomm Company Patent for Third-Party Payers
The idea of third-party payment is by no means new—your friend pays for your lunch, insurance companies often pay for health care, etc. Yet if you looked at a patent granted this year to Securus, a telecommunications company providing telephone services to prisoners, you'd think they invented the idea of getting someone else to foot the bill. As the EFF points out, Securus' patent for establishing someone else to pay prisoner's phone bills should have been rejected as obvious: third-party payment is already a well-established business practice and a previous court ruling precludes patenting an abstract idea simply because it was realized with existing technology. As it turns out, the USPTO did originally reject Securus' patent, but Securus appealed this rejection and was eventually awarded the patent.
DECEMBER: Microsoft's Design Patent on a Slider
This week Microsoft filed a complaint against Corel, which allegedly copied the design of a slider for use in its Corel Home Office software. The slider in question looks like this:
According to Microsoft, this slider design is original to their Office suite and they filed a patent for its design in 2006. While this may seem trivial, there is a lot at stake. If Corel is found to be infringing on Microsoft's slider design patent, Federal Circuit law entitles Microsoft to every penny of profit from Corel's Home Office software. This punishment stems from the Apple v. Samsung ruling, which was recently upheld in May after Samsung sought to overturn the ruling on the basis of its evident absurdity.
This is just a small taste of the lunacy that arises from patent trolling, a problem that has atrophied to the point that the EFF assigned a special chair for someone who is solely tasked with getting rid of stupid patents. Yet if our 225-year history of patenting has taught us anything, the Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents has his work cut out for him as there's never been a shortage of terrible ideas in the United States. So here's to a new year, chock full of new stupid inventions.