Reston, Virginia patent attorney David Stein spoke to Slate about misconceptions in the media caused by seemingly strange or “creepy” patents that have been granted to large companies in recent years.
While sensational headlines about companies filing over the top patents occasionally pop up in the news, the reality of the invention is often far less strange than it is perceived. The article provides an example of a Sony system that allows television watchers to skip commercials by yelling the advertiser’s name out loud. The artwork depicts a man standing up and yelling “McDonald’s!” at his TV to end a commercial about burgers, for example. The same technology could easily be used in an educational format for children, though, which doesn’t have the same taste of corporate maliciousness that some headlines might imply.
“Everybody involved in the patent process is a technologist. … We don’t tend to step back and think, ‘This could be perceived as something else by people who don’t trust us,’” says Stein. PR debacles can easily occur in situations like these when companies file patents for seemingly strange technologies or patent attorneys give the appearance of having too much fun in drafting patent applications. A closer look at the claims, however, will often reveal a more focused and technical description of the invention. It can also reveal the real-world problems that the invention is attempting to solve.
Despite the PR risks, seemingly strange patent applications continue to be filed. One reason is to protect new technologies in case they turn out to be popular. Similarly, some patent applications are filed as a defensive move to hinder competitors from gaining an advantage in a new space.
Some companies also hold “invention harvesting meetings” or “IP Harvesting sessions” in which engineers or scientists get together with marketing and business execs to brainstorm ideas. Some ideas may warrant further development and some may eventually become patents.
“In those sessions, the inventors are engaged and excited about it. It’s energizing to hear them talk about them,” says Stein.
As ideas become fodder for new patents and the IP-PR cycle continues, all parties — inventors, attorneys, journalists, and casual readers — should bear in mind that innovation can be very public and it does not always move along a straight path.