November 15, 2019

The Reason We Have So Many Absurd Tech Patents

“Amazon is putting humans in cages to protect them from machines!

Facebook is selling your face to advertisers so it can CGI you into ads!

Sony has a system where you can skip ads if you stand up and yell the brand’s name!

None of these things are technically true—they’re headlines driven by patents filed by these companies. In each case, the company has not developed these technologies (and in some cases, the headlines aren’t even accurately describing the patent, but we’ll get to that in a minute). And it’s likely that they never will. And yet, head-scratching and sometimes hilarious patents continue to populate the patent office and generate headlines. So why are there so many strange, somewhat terrifying patents that companies will likely never act on?

There are lots of reasons to patent something. The most obvious one is that you’ve come up with a brilliant invention, and you want to protect your idea so that nobody can steal it from you. But that’s just the tip of the patent strategy iceberg. It turns out there is a whole host of strategies that lead to “zany” or “weird” patent filings, and understanding them offers a window not just into the labyrinthine world of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and its potential failings, but also into how companies think about the future. And while it might be fun to gawk at, say, Motorola patenting a lie-detecting throat tattoo, it’s also important to see through the eye-catching headlines and to the bigger issue here: Patents can be weapons and signals. They can spur innovation, as well as crush it.”

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