The 11 Stupidest Patents of 2016
The Electronic Frontier Foundation chooses the stupidest patents of the stupidest year.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Last year, the US Patent and Trademark Office saw nearly 630,000 patent applications come through its doors, roughly half of which were granted a patent. Some of these patents were pretty incredible, such as Amazon's patent for 3D printing products on demand or this "solar powered space weapon." Unfortunately, for every patent filed for a game changing technology, several others are filed for utterly mundane inventions whose sole purpose is to be used as 'Exhibit A' in patent infringement lawsuits.
This practice, known as patent trolling, is a huge systemic problem in the United States which is getting worse every year. A full two-thirds of all patent lawsuits filed in the US are filed by patent trolls, who stockpile stupid patents so that they can extort money from other inventors in court for violating their patent, even though the patent troll never had any intention of actually putting their patent to use.
Ultimately, patent trolls are a bane to innovation, which is why a number of Silicon Valley giants like Google have put pressure on Congress to do something to stem the rising tide of patent trolling in the US. So far, congressional attempts to reform the US patent system have failed and some of these tech companies have taken matters into their own hands through events like the Patent Purchase Promotion, which saw Google buy tons of patents relevant to the company.
While Silicon Valley keeps waging its war against the patent trolls that are costing some companies millions of dollars a year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has taken a more humorous approach to the problem. In 2014, the EFF created its 'Stupid Patent of the Month,' a prestigious monthly award bestowed upon patent trolls who have the unique privilege of inventing really dumb stuff. While it seemed like it was going to be difficult to top last year's bevy of stupid ideas, 2016 has not been a disappointment.
So without further ado, here are the dumbest inventions of 2016:
JANUARY: A digital library card
Xerox kicked off 2016 in style when their invention for a "Social Network for Enabling the Physical Sharing of Documents" was awarded a patent on January 19. This patent describes systems which "enable the sharing of documents among people working in proximate locations, while still promoting worker efficiency and independence." Moreover, this system would function as a social networking platform for specific organizations that would allow members of that organization operating in the same space to know what documents their peers are reading and which documents those peers are willing to provide a physical copy of.
As the EFF points out in their write up of this stupid patent, the language that describes the invention only serves to make its real purpose all but unintelligible to those who aren't versed in legal "patent-speak." For example, when Claim 11 of Xerox's patent is re-written in plain English, it turns out that what Xerox is trying to patent is essentially a library's circulation card, which notes who checked out a book at the library and how long that book will be borrowed for. In other words, the USPTO "just gave Xerox a patent on what amounts to sharing a book, but electronically."
FEBRUARY: Personalized Computer Marketing
February's stupid patent award goes to Patent No. 8,738,435, for a "Method and apparatus for presenting personalized content relating to offered products and services." That's right—a patent for digitally sending a personalized marketing message. As the EFF notes, this patent is written in highly abstract language, describing its apparatus as comprised of "a computer-accessible storage medium" that uses "identifying content to distinguish each person from other persons."
According to the EFF, this patent should be invalid due to a 2014 Supreme Court case which decided that abstract ideas implemented on a regular computer can't be granted patents.
Nevertheless, this patent and others in its family (groups of patents that have the same application) have been used by an Arizona-based company called Phoenix Licensing to file dozens of lawsuits against companies since the original patent application in 1996 (it wasn't granted a patent until 2013). The reason that the EFF chose this patent this month was because Phoenix Licensing had used this patent family to sue "at least a dozen" companies (ranging from CVS to Credo Mobile) in February alone.
MARCH: Managing a crew using a computer
This month's stupid patent goes to the "Mobile Crew Management System for Distributing Work Order Assignments to Mobile Field Crew Units." It was awarded to a company called Intellectual Ventures, an infamous patent troll that has been at the heart of a number of high profile patent lawsuits. In essence, this patent assigns tasks to a crew of workers in the field using a computer. To demonstrate what this would be like, the EFF offers a short dialogue:
DISPATCHER: Hey, is your crew available?
DISPATCHER: We need you to head over to Jimmie's place and fix his problem.
DISPATCHER: This is Rosie, right?
DISPATCHER: Great. This job has been assigned to you.
So that, but using a computer.
April saw a shadow company known as Voice2Text file two lawsuits against well-known voice over internet protocol (VoIP) service providers, Phone.com and Vitelity. Voice2Text has no web presence of any other information about their company online, but they do own US Patent No. 8,914,003 for an invention that converts a voicemail into a text message.
Although the patent itself is full of the legalese that is typical of patent filings, it doesn't actually say how the "module" that converts audio to text actually works. In other words, "it's merely a patent on the system for sending a voicemail as an email and a text message…one of the most obvious things you'd want to do with a speech recognition system." Aside from not actually describing the thing it is patenting, the EFF points out another problem with this patent: it isn't actually a new invention. US law denies patents to inventions that already existed or would be obvious to someone in the relevant field, and Voice2Text qualifies for both of these. The company's patent was granted in 2006, but the EFF found two products from 2005 and 2001 that essentially do the exact same thing.
MAY: My Health®
May's stupid patent belongs to a company called My Health, which invented a "method and system for monitoring and treating a patient." In essence, this method involves assessing data about a remote patient's condition, updating the patient's treatment plan based on this new data, and then "generating and providing compliance data" based on the treatment plan.
As EFF notes, this patent is essentially a rehashing of Telehealth, the umbrella term for telecommunications technologies that are related to health-services. Moreover, the method described is so banal that even Star Trek had managed to come up with the invention years before My Health. The stupidity of this patent is pretty astounding, but then again, maybe it should've been expected from a company that holds a trademark for the term "my health" (which according to the company means it is "the only person or entity entitled to use... 'My Health' in commerce).
Either way, My Health has sued other companies for patent infringement on several occasions, prompting reviews into the patent's validity that were inconclusive after the lawsuits between the parties were settled. The company also sued General Electric for trademark infringement last year, which GE contested but was unable to overturn the trademark before settlement.
JUNE: Storage cabinets on a computer
This month's stupid patent is my personal favorite: "virtual cabinets" that are used to store and organize data on your computer. You may think I'm joking, but I'm not—in fact, the company that owns the patent is suing pretty much anyone who runs a website for infringement, including companies like AirBnb and Zillow.
In essence, the patent troll behind these virtual cabinets is claiming to have invented virtual machines and system partitions, the operating folder otherwise known as the system root. It invented neither of these things, despite the fact that its virtual cabinet is basically just a bad version of these computing structures that have been around for decades.
This month's stupid patent belongs to Solocron Education, a company which invented a "verification system for non-traditional learning operations." In other words, Solocron Education apparently invented passwords, and the USPTO agreed.
In short, the Solocron patent outlines a system whereby students are provided educational materials online and must periodically confirm their identity by entering a password or providing biographical details. According to the EFF, the only reason that this password slipped through the approval process is because it used 119 words to describe a mundane, pre-existing process. Such "overly verbose" language is often used to trick the USPTO into granting patents that should never have been approved.
AUGUST: Academic peer review
If you've ever had to do research for school or work, chances are you've come across Elsevier, a massive academic publisher hosting its publications online. Elsevier has drawn a lot of flak from academics recently for being a poor steward of academic publications, and now it is behind August's stupid patent for an "online peer review and method."
As the name of the invention might suggest, Elsevier has created a way to peer review academic publications by using a computer. In short, it is a patent on a "waterfall process" which allows authors whose articles have been rejected from one journal to immediately submit that same article to a different publication. The only problem is this technique, known more widely as "cascading review" has been around since 2009.
Elsevier's patent was rejected three times by the USPTO, but by increasingly narrowing the scope of its patent claims while taking advantage of the fact that you can resubmit a patent to the USPTO an unlimited number of times, the publisher was eventually able to force its no good, very stupid patent through to approval.
SEPTEMBER: Rectangles on a screen
Issued on September 27, this patent is for a "display screen portion with graphical user interface," which has "ornamental design for a display screen portion." Sounds pretty fancy, but what the patent is actually talking about is a bunch of rectangles on a computer screen. More specifically, three rectangles with a square underneath. I'm not joking—the patent looks like this:
OCTOBER: Changing the channel
October's patent is for "Video input switching and signal processing apparatus," filed by a well-known patent troll called Bartonfalls, LLC. The patent itself is pretty short, just two pages, and describes a way of changing the channel. More specifically, channels that are coming from different inputs, such as a cable channel and a free-to-air broadcast. Even more strange, this patent is oriented toward technologies that you'd be likely to find on a 90s television set (like VCRs and satellite tuners). It doesn't even mention the internet, but the patent troll has sued the New York Times on the basis of how the newspaper provides its online video content for allegedly violating the claims of this patent.
NOVEMBER: Movies from the cloud
To end 2016 in good style, the EFF saved one of the stupidest patents for last. Titled 'system and method for storing broadcast content in a cloud-based computing environment,' this patent is essentially Netflix or Amazon video, but a decade too late. The company behind this patent might've been expected to invent something so stupid, based on the fact that last year the EFF awarded them another stupid patent for an internet-connected blender, several years after internet-connected blenders had become a thing.
This 'movies from the cloud' patent hardly even makes an effort to distinguish itself from other cloud-based media services like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Video. In fact, it's not really clear how this patent was approved at all, considering that it merely repurposes existing technology for an obvious use.