Monday, November 04, 2013

Patents of the week

Each week the patent office releases patents approved that week.  I try to keep up on them for work, but it is a tough list to troll through because the order is so esoteric and listed by number.   Here are a few from a month ago that I copied out because they caught my eye.  Basically anything can be patented if you are persistent and good at writing patent claims.  And there are so many patents.  Millions of them.  

In full disclosure, none of these are ones that matter to my work.  They are not my area of expertise and I am not probably the best judge of their true value, but as an outsider that reads these things, I think they are good examples of the idiosyncrasies of our patent system. By no means are my comments meant as legal or intellectual property advice.   

That was a mouthful.  

"This American Life" - the public radio show, did a series of shows about patents (Show 1 and Show 2) and one of the largest holders of patents - Intellectual Ventures.  It is a fascinating story.  Many of the claims in the story are denied in the official responses by Intellectual Ventures (Link1, Link2, and Link3).  I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between.  There are definitely patents out there that are badly written with very broad claims that I suspect are not defensible in court.  There are also persons that try to take advantage of the system to collect royalties from competitors.  Many smaller companies or individuals may not have the financial means or expertise to struggle through the complex and inane system built up for legal dispute and protection from patents.   

There are just so many things that I am surprised are patented or patentable.  


This patent was filed by the U.S. Navy.  I would hate to work at this computer station that monitors how often you look away from the screen and what part you point. Darn it, I just thought of an application where this patent could be built upon to be actually useful and not just a Draconian monitoring system for false worker productivity in some sort of military cubicle hive.

Here are some other examples of the kind of thing that is patented each week.  Many of them are components of a larger system and the hope of the filing inventor is that the patent will protect them from competition without disclosing too much about their invention.

Method for separating substrates

Many of the topics require some expertise.  Obviously if separating substrates is important for most chemical extractions, there must be different ways to do it, but I have no idea how this method works. 


How is this process patentable? I have no idea.  It seems like any crop insurer would have a computer, some way of querying data and a way of estimating the cost of crop insurance.  Many of these patents are to clear the path from potential competitors that could potentially sue to block others from using similar web interfaces.  There are tons of these types of patents.  

Many patents are incremental improvements.  This is the firing piston of a gun.  It looks similar to others, but if you knew firearms well, and I don't, maybe you could see some improvement over available designs, I guess.  


So many of the most recent patents from Google and Facebook look like this.  They have some flow diagrams that outline their strategy for passing information about what we do on the internet back to a database of ads and then picks the ads that are displayed to the user.  And presumably charges the advertiser. 

Like I said, there are tons of these right now.  Each week there are very similar patents that come out.  I am sure there is a patent fight in the future where someone will have to reconcile these very similar patents. 

I can't even imagine how this is unique.  As an outsider, this looks exactly like the process that I learned in my early statistics courses.  Essentially this process datamines a sample for a measurement that is significantly different from the null hypothesis and then calculates a p-value.  There is some automation proposed for the calculation and normalization, but that is all.  I would love to be able to sit down with the patent office and the patent holders in confidential meetings where everyone was completely upfront about what this is really for.  I suspect this will be implemented in some computer program to detect signal to noise variance, but besides that I nothing that to me is unique or patentable about it.

If you want to see a bunch of truly bizare patents check out these links:

A list of absurd patents -

Apple patents rounded corners -
I won't even get started on design patents.  This is an area where the asthetics of something are potentially patentable.  Things like how wide your cellphone is or shape of the buttons, etc.

What does this all mean?  Patents are the base of most businesses and now universities.  It costs money to develop new ideas and most companies want some way to sell that idea directly to consumers or to sell the idea to other companies who will make something that someone else buys.  Either way it is a complicated business because it is tough to determine what is truly novel and what isn't.  There are similarities and differences that sometimes I think the patent office doesn't do a good job differentiating.  And when they don't, people go to court.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Something had to give

These last two months were a little nuts.  In September, I went to North Carolina, twice to Minnesota, Manitoba, Canada, twice to Nebraska, Illinois, twice to Missouri, South Dakota, and North Dakota.  I put thousands of miles on my truck and ate at small diners, restaurants, and bars (Many small towns really only have two places to buy food - a small grocery and a bar, if the grocery has a deli they usually have a great pork loin dinner for 6-7 dollars.) throughout the Midwest.  I had notes to take in the nursery and visitors from out of state.  It seemed like every day there was something pulling my attention away.  In October the combines started to roll and data started to pile up.  That means that I didn't go anywhere and do anything but stare at numbers on my computer screen, till midnight many nights.

I don't mean to complain, really, OK, maybe a little.  Feel free to massage my ego and tell me how I made it.

Leila and the girls covered for my absence and long work hours.  It is great being close to work so I can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with them, unless I am out of town.  Even when I had to work late I was able to read to the kids and then go back for a few more hours of fun with data.  But, a lot didn't happen.  I missed three violin lessons with my only student, who then quit.  I brought my violin with me on my travels and practiced in my hotel rooms in the evenings, but only opened the case once in October.  I didn't update the blog obviously.  On the road I did run, but stopped as soon as data started rolling.  I didn't run, do yoga, or even sit ups.  I tried not to eat a lot of junk food, but did eat a very large piece of meatloaf in a diner near Harlan and washed it down with mash potatoes, dark gravy, bacony green beans, and apple pie.  I made it to some of the kids activities - I made it to watch Emily cross the finish line in cross country, but had to sprint the last 800 yards to make it.  She is dang fast. We went running together on a weekend in September and my ego has to deal with the fact that she is faster than me.  I just can't do 7 minute miles anymore without more consistent training.  A lot happened this last month or two, but it feels like one of those long dreams that upon waking fade to impressions of details that don't fit together.

Emily has honor band this week and has been busy this last month or two with cross country, band, and choir.  Becca is willing to try anything that her older sisters do.
She has started walking, climbing up and down all the stairs, and climbing on anything handy.  She folds arms when we pray, blows kisses, chases the cat, and loves pretty shoes more than anything else.  She is utterly fearless compared to Kate and insists on climbing up and down stairs even though she has fallen down them.
She also thinks she is very funny in these glasses.
And wants to ride the horse every time she goes downstairs.
The girls and I picked apples at the Boyds'.  Leila and her friend Kate canned over 120 jars of applesauce.
 I made a great cheesecake out of the leftover ricotta cheese.  The crust is made from pecans, dates and chocolate.  Very decadent.
These four played and played together.  Our downstairs is full of toys and dress-up clothes, but they had fun.
Colleen has started piano with gusto and will play her songs for as long as we let her.  She plays a mean Old McDonald.