NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Patent Office Goes Where No Man Has Gone Before -- Or Will Ever Go

May 31, 2000

The U.S. Patent Office has come under withering criticism in recent years for issuing absurd patents. Observers say it suffers from overworked, underpaid and inexpert clerks who approve applications without really thinking them through. Also, the office suffers from an explosion of patent applications related to the Internet and new computer technologies.

Here are some examples of patents which should never have been issued, but were:

  • One issued in February is for an antenna that sends signals faster than the speed of light -- an impossibility by Einstein's reckoning.
  • Another, issued in 1996, purports to compress any data set by at least one bit without loss of information -- a process that, if done recursively, could shrink the Encyclopedia Britannica to a single word from which the original could be flawlessly reconstructed.
  • One patent for a Compton's CD-ROM covered any method of retrieving data from a disk.
  • Another company's patent protected the very notion of letting buyers use the Internet to bid on things like airline tickets.

Experts say the weaknesses are especially evident in the arena of patents for business models -- with a patent being granted, for example, on a way to pool mutual fund assets for better efficiency and tax treatments. Such lapses do not foster innovation, but crush it.

In just eight years, the number of patent applications has risen 38 percent to 290,000 a year.

Source: Philip E. Ross, "Patently Absurd," Forbes, May 29, 2000.

 

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