South Africa: Patents – Weird And Wonderful!

Last Updated: 4 October 2019
Article by Hugo Biermann
Most Read Contributor in South Africa, September 2019

A recent article entitled Why Are There So Many Weird Tech Patents? by Rose Eveleth has an interesting take on patents. It suggests that the conventional wisdom behind the patent system is only half the story. The conventional wisdom, of course, goes something like this:

The patent system is a reward-and-stimulus model that grants innovative people a time-limited monopoly to inventions. It’s in all of our interest to have such a system. It benefits the inventor, who has the opportunity not only to recoup their investment but also to profit handsomely from it. It also benefits society as a whole, especially when the patent falls into the public domain.

There’s a distinctly quirky aspect to the article, with mention of some truly weird and wonderful patents: a lie-detecting throat tattoo, a delivery blimp, a flying warehouse, an underwater warehouse, a self-destructing drone, a drone tunnel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Amazon filed quite a few of these applications.

The article makes some interesting points:

People are actually watching patents

Because trade marks and copyright often involve celebrities and household brands, it’s these areas of IP law that tend to attract the greatest public interest. When it came to patents, the author suggests that for many years “nobody was looking”. But that’s changing. As she says, “journalists are using patents as a window into a company’s psyche, and not always in a way that makes these companies look good”.

Patents can be speculative

Because the patent system is all about getting in as early as possible, it’s not unusual for a company to file a patent application before it even knows whether it will actually have any use for the invention. Big companies with deep pockets often file patent applications for a number of new ideas, in the expectation that they may actually only run with one or two of them.

Patents can be defensive

Companies often file patent applications for purely defensive purposes. In other words, simply to make sure that a competitor doesn’t use the technology. The article makes the interesting point that in some cases a company will file or keep pursuing a patent application, notwithstanding the fact that the team that came up with the technology may have been disbanded and the whole business idea scrapped.

Size matters

The author tells us that “companies love to boast about the number of patents they have, as if it’s some kind of quantitative measure of brilliance”. The suggestion is that when it comes to commercial negotiations between companies (take-overs, mergers) there’s not a great deal of analysis of the patents, simply a number count.

There’s strategy involved

This may come as a surprise, but companies don’t always patent their most important inventions. The reason – they don’t always have full faith in the system. There’s this quote from Elon Musk, explaining why, despite the fact that his company has many patents, it hasn’t filed any patents relating to SpaceX:

“Our primary long-term competition is in China. If we published patents, it would be farcical, because the Chinese would just use them as a recipe book.”

Patent lawyers often need to be really creative

Patenting often involves considerable creativity, with patent lawyers needing to “dress up science fiction with words like ‘means for processing’ or ‘data storage device’”. Sometimes even needing to devise “prophetic examples” about how the patent might work!

There can be abuse

Companies that are issued vague patents can, and sometimes do, go after other companies and try to extract money from them: “It’s like beating your competitor over the head with a piece of science fiction you wrote.”

What this article does is throw a welcome spotlight on some of the thought processes behind patenting. There are, of course, many reasons why a company might want to patent its technology. The most obvious one is that it wants to ensure that it has a monopoly, in other words that it has the sole right to use the technology. It might be that the company doesn’t yet know where the field of technology is heading, but wants to be prepared for all eventualities – the company might then file numerous applications and eventually proceed with the most viable one. Or the company might be thinking defensively, and it might be trying to create a thicket of patents that makes life difficult for its competitors.

It’s also quite possible that the company may see the patent in purely commercial terms. As something that can be licensed to third parties, thereby creating revenue streams. As something that can be sold. As something that increases the value of the company. As something that simply gives the company some value or advantage over competitors.

From a South African perspective, the fact that there is currently no substantive patent examination also opens up the door for possible “abuse”. For instance, a big, multinational corporation can register a large number of patents in South Africa on a highly desirable or life changing technology, without having to “prove” to the South African Patent Office that the inventions are worthy of patent protection, just to pose a barrier to entry to smaller players. This may restrict access to the technology by making it prohibitively expensive. It can be difficult for a smaller company to challenge these patents, as it might not have the deep pockets required for patent litigation. However, this issue will hopefully be addressed by the impending amendments to the South African patent laws and regulations which will see the reintroduction of substantive patent examination.

The article also shines a spotlight on some of the reasons why patents might be abandoned. It might be because of bad publicity or unwanted media attention, perhaps as a result of the nature of the invention itself – examples might include technology that might be considered creepy or invasive. It might even be because of a change of direction on the part of the company, for example a decision to go open source.

In conclusion, it is clear that there is immense value in patents. What is important, is that this value should be extracted using a patenting strategy that is aligned with the commercial strategy of the company.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Practice Guides
by Mondaq Advice Centres
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions