May 22, 2013, 3:25 PM — Welcome to the wacky world of tech patents--a place where you'll find not just the crazy-sounding ideas that inhabit any category of patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), but some ideas that seem so minute or so obvious that you wonder how they ever qualified as patentworthy.
Once issued, however, a patent isn't just a shield. It's a weapon that companies and individuals can use against their competitors. "Patent trolls" are infamous for acquiring patents and then making the business of filing lawsuits against alleged infringers their core competency.
The technology sector is hardly alone in taking patent-holding to extreme levels of judivial enforcement. But some of the most bizarre tech patents we found suggest that we may need a new idea for protecting ideas--one that can more easily weed out the lawyers and the loonies.
The 'Interactive Web' patent
In 1993, Michael Doyle, a researcher at the University of California, purportedly coinvented a technology that eventually became an integral part of the Internet experience: Webpage interactivity. Several years later, such interactivity was the norm. Was UC hijacked, or did others also figure out the obvious? It didn't matter--armed with a key patent, Doyle and his one-man company Eolas quickly resorted to the courtroom.
Eolas initiated a lawsuit rampage that continued for a decade and included numerous victories, including a whopping $521 million judgment against Microsoft and various lucrative licensing deals. Finally, in a potentially landmark suit in early 2012, a jury derailed the Eolas locomotive by reaching a verdict that no one owned the "Interactive Web."
Even so, Doyle & Co. persist. Watch your back.
1-Click shopping: The Secret to Amazon's success?
Give 'em credit. The brain trust at Amazon knew early in the game that a dead-easy checkout experience--one without forms and ID checks and indecipherable captchas was mandatory to retail success online. So, two years after it sold its first hardcover, and four years before it turned a profit, Amazon filed to patent "1-Click" shopping. The USPTO granted that patent two years later, in 1999.
In the years since, the incredible reach of said patent, especially in the face of cookie ubiquity, has grown increasingly obvious. Amazon rivals have challenged it from every angle, and it has lost some of its power along the way. But here in North America, Amazon continues to enjoy the many advantages of what may rank as one of the most ridiculous patents ever awarded.
Sometimes, commentary is unnecessary. Here then is the patent abstract for Think Tanks Co. Ltd's inexplicably baffling "Instrument for Contemplation," somehow approved in 2004:
"The tool for contemplation comprises a paper on which a main unit and a sub unit that surrounds the main unit are printed. The main unit includes a subject display cell that displays a subject and a plurality of thought results display cells that display a plurality of thought results found from the subject. Each sub unit includes a new subject display cell that displays each thought result as a new subject, and a plurality of new thought results display cells that surrounds the new subject display cell and that display a plurality of thought results found from the new subject."
Confused? Do what the United States Patent and Trademark Office must have done. Check the illustration for clarity.
Wait, what? Now I'm even more confused.
Intelligent Smart Phone vs. Apple
As cool as that whole David versus Goliath deal might be, and as righteous as it feels to fight the power, sometimes you just have to side with The Man.
Case in point: Intelligent Smart Phone Concepts versus Apple. In one corner, the patent-hoarding, closed-architecture iGiant of the computer world. Across the ring, a nothing. A business that exists for the sole purpose of suing the aforementioned iGiant--an entity that at least makes stuff--over a single patent infringement.
Not obscene enough for you? Then consider this: ISPC's $3-million lawsuit hinges on its 2008 patent describing how to plug a headset into a mobile phone. How to plug a headset into a mobilephone. You want broad? You want obvious? Look no further.
Microsoft patents your keyboard keys--or did they?
It's hard to remember a time when physical keyboards didn't have Page Up and Page Down keys. Just about every keyboard since the IBM Selectric disappeared has had 'em. And that's why a lot of people flipped their wigs in 2008 in response to initial (and histrionic) reports that Microsoft had patented Page Up/Down functionality.
The initial reports were wrong. Microsoft hadn't patented those Page Up/Down keys. Instead, it had patented a process allowing users to zip ahead a full page rather than a full screen--a crucial difference.
Granted, over time Microsoft has been every bit as annoying with its innovation-stifling patent frivolousness as its more maligned counterpart, Apple. And sure, Microsoft's implementation probably still falls into the "obvious" category if we're being fair. But this is one of several instances where react-first, investigate-later media gratuitously stirred the patent pot.
The Smartphone Technologies debacle
Though this article deals with frivolous patents, it wouldn't be complete without a quick look at the other side of the coin: the frivolous patent infringement suit. And to that end, we present Smartphone Technologies, LLC.
Smartphone Technologies doesn't have a website. It doesn't have a storefront, office, staff, or telephone number. And it certainly doesn't seem to develop and/or sell products. What it does have is a propensity for filing complaints--patent infringement complaints, to be exact.
In its time, Smartphone Technologies--a subsidiary of patent-purchasing megatroll Acacia Research Corporation--has sued a who's who of the tech world, including Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Dell, HTC, LG, Microsoft, Nokia, RIM, and Sony, among others. Congrats, ST dudes, for an exemplary business model.
The everything patent
Parody site The Onion suckered more than a few nimrods consumers with its 2009 "MacBook Wheel" spoof, chronicling a purportedly new Apple laptop that sported a single click wheel instead of a keyboard. Memorable moments include "Everything is only a few hundred clicks away."
Yet we all know Apple loathes traditional control methods. Witness the company's 2012 patent, "Method for providing human input to a computer," a meandering, 26,000-word behemoth that touches on...virtually everything, including robots, force feedback, multitouch controls, virtual controllers, visual cues, and a potential fifth dimension. All this in a single patent? That restores our faith in the patent office.
Scottevest swims with the sharks
Festooned with hidden compartments and wiring conduits, the apparel from Ketchum, Idaho's Scottevest targets folks who would rather have their electronic gadgets strapped to their bodies than dangling from their hands. Scottevest is doing okay, due in no small part to the publicity machine that is Scottevest boss (and namesake) Scott Jordan.
Jordan's biggest claim to fame is a 2012 appearance on TV's Shark Tank, where he seemed more interested in pitching Technology Enabled Clothing (TEC), a company that licenses patented Scottevest technology--and profits when those patents are "violated"--than Scottevest itself. The Sharks didn't cotton to the patent trolling idea.
"Running a wire through a piece of clothing?" panel member Mark Cuban sputtered during the show. "That's a patent? Are you kidding me?"
Cuban and Jordan continued their verbal slapfight on Twitter, resulting in 140-character gems like the one you see to the right. Shortly thereafter, Cuban put his money where his mouth is. Last December, he donated $250,000 to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to create "The Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents."
"The current state of patents and patent litigation in this country is shameful," he said in the press release announcing the donation. Need more proof? Read on.
Apple invents the rectangle
You needn't be a tech freak to be aware of the ongoing hostilities between Apple and Samsung. Indeed, plug "Apple vs. Samsung" into any old search engine and you'll encounter gazillions of hits. This ain't no hillbilly moonshinin' feud.
It all started-- publicly anyway--in 2011, when Apple filed patent infringement suits against its South Korean rival. Samsung responded with countersuits, Apple fired back, and soon there were more suits than you'd find at a Men in Black convention.
But the peak of frivolousness undoubtedly arrived in late 2012, when the USPTO granted Apple one of the broadest "design patents" ever, for what amounts to a round-cornered rectangle--the shape that has graced virtually every mobile device...ever. "New and useful?" Er...
A blow for normalcy: The slide-to-unlock denial
We end our look at the patently loony with a potential beacon of simple rationality shining in the seemingly eternal darkness of rights bickering and protectionism. For this, we go to the land of fish 'n' chips and really good soccer leagues, where a July 2012 judgment by the High Court of London could--repeat, could--have far-reaching impact.
When it ruled that HTC had not infringed on Apple's "slide to unlock" patent, concluding that slide to unlock is an "obvious" evolution in mobile devices, it may have set the stage for future common-sense judicial findings. Another such ruling was the April 2013 decision by Bundespatentgericht, Germany's Federal Patent Court, to invalidate all prior Apple slide-to-unlock patents in that country. The Bundespatentgericht concluded that Apple's patents lacked "technical innovation."
Hey, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office! Are you paying attention?