Patents help innovators shield their ideas from being copied by competitors. Having a patent separates you from the crowd and puts you one step ahead of others. But patents are not just about standing out in a crowd. They help beat competitors, earn royalty through licensing, bring others to trial, earn returns, create a defensive mechanism, and much more. There is a whole world of benefits that patents open up.
These attractive prospects do sometimes result in overenthusiasm, and innovators get swept away and file for patents that may seem pointless and at times, downright impractical to the ordinary eye.
Some patents make you wonder what prompted them to be filed in the first place! For example, US6637447B2 (https://patents.google.com/patent/US6637447B2/en?oq=US6637447B2) is a patent granted in 2003 that provides a small umbrella ("Beerbrella") which may be removably attached to a beverage container in order to shade the beverage container from the direct rays of the sun. Another patent, US5901666A (https://patents.google.com/patent/US5901666?oq=Patent+No.+5%2c901%2c666), granted in 1999 relates to clothing for transporting and displaying small pets while worn by a person. Who would have thought that somebody might actually own a patent for a timepiece that monitors and displays the approximate time remaining in a user's life, US5031161A (https://patents.google.com/patent/US5031161?oq=Patent+No.+5%2c031%2c161). Even the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) publishes a yearly list of patents that it identifies as "weird and wonderful". The 2021 selection can be accessed here: https://www.wipo.int/patents/en/2021_patent_picks.html
"Weird and wonderful" patents are not just the quirks of small or individual inventors but tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon and Google, are also filing such patents. It is almost as though these companies do not want to leave any idea unprotected, even if the idea may never be used by the company or may even sound strange or crazy. For instance, Google has a patent on advertising based on environmental conditions (https://patents.google.com/patent/US8138930B1/en?oq=US8138930B1 ) where advertisements are identified based on the environmental condition, and the advertisement is provided to a remote device. Another Google patent is for a digital temporary throat tattoo that relays your voice to your smartphone, coupling an electronic skin tattoo to a mobile communication device. (https://patents.google.com/patent/US20130297301A1/en?oq=US20130297301A1). With Amazon's Aquatic Storage Facility (https://patents.google.com/patent/US9624034B1/en?oq=US+9624034), one can get rid of the conventional – and perhaps boring – method of storing on land. Yet another locates a lost child in a crowd, in a patent for an unmanned aerial vehicle assistant for monitoring of user activity (https://patents.google.com/patent/US9973737B1/en?oq=US9973737B1). Further, one more to the list is Apple's Bag (https://patents.google.com/patent/US10259616B2/en?oq=US10259616B2), which claims a retail paper bag. These are just a few examples, and the actual number of such patents are many more than one would imagine.
While patents clearly come with a lot of benefits, they are also an expensive affair, and the costs can climb up quite spectacularly if one accounts for filing for "weird and wonderful" ideas such as these. So why are these companies filing for such inventions? It would seem to be purely strategic on the part of the companies, in that they seek to use these filings to pre-empt competitors from even working on these ideas, and prohibit them from building on the same. Such companies possibly operate with the presumption that the future is yet unknown, one can never predict what idea – which is utterly and completely fanciful and perhaps even unacceptable today – may become the new normal in the future.
Such filings also act as a defensive strategy or mechanism for companies. And peripherally, such filings can be a publicity tool too, to keep oneself in the news, and if not always relevant, at least, keep oneself visible in the public eye.
Other reasons for filing such patents could be that companies want to build a strong portfolio, something that can be flaunted in front of competitors. Patents as an intangible asset have acquired a significance of their own. As the patenting process is an expensive affair, it follows that if you have more patents to your credit, you have had more cash to burn, and are thus more wealthy. It would not be out of turn to call a patent portfolio a signifier of wealth in itself. Flashing large numbers of patents help companies acquire a reputation of a certain kind of entity and a certain kind of spender, irrespective of the ideas behind the patent.
Patents and portfolios like these serve as reminders that the human imagination is a fascinating thing indeed, and that the sky is not the limit for whatever you want to make or do!
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