Top Ten of Patent Trolling

A patent troll… what an insane concept. The name conjures up a whole awesome unwritten world of Corporate Fantasy. Tax elves, Vice-Associate Unicorns, Minotaur LLCs… damn, I think I’ve got a series to write!

(Stay on topic, Jamie)

As someone who’s working in a relatively new field, I’m a little conflicted about patents. Obviously, its important to reward people for their hard work and genius with a slice of the profit. However, the notion that our ideas are private property has been taken to some amazing extremes. Patent trolls are people who try to use the patent and trademark systems to put their stamp on everything possible, sometimes even things they didn’t actually make. They do it to make a buck, and of course everyone has to make a buck, but the results range from the ridiculous to the frightening.

The ten most out-of-control patents and trademarks I’ve run across after the jump.

10. Happy Birthday

You probably know about this one… ever noticed how rare birthday parties are in movies compared to, say, Christmases? That’s because “Happy Birthday” was a song written this century. Time Warner bought up the copyright, hiked the price to a billion dollars a use, and patrolled their claim vigorously. As a result, I can’t think of a cinematic B-Day chorus since Tom Hanks went to that Italian restaurant in “Big”.

I’m putting this at #10 because I don’t actually think it’s all that unfair. Sure it annoys me that a tradition falls afoul of IP law, but it only seems wrong because the tune is so widespread. If I write an amazingly catchy funeral song, I should be able to control commercial uses of it, even if it is bellowed over every casket.

9. The “Moving Helper”

In my search for crazy patent/trademark issues, I learned something new: apparently U-Haul is kind of a dick company. First they sued some guy for libel when he wrote about their crappy service, then they sued a small moving site Hire-A-Helper for using the terms “Moving Helper” and “Moving Help” in on their site. Apparently U-Haul has a trademark on those terms… effectively blocking anyone else from talking about being a moving company. Luckily the State of Arizona threw their weak sauce claim out.

8. The Wheel

A dude applied for an Innovation patent for the frakkin WHEEL in Australia, 2001. And he got it. For a few sweet minutes, he could live the Aussiemerican dream and SUE EVERY CAR. This would be higher on the list if it hadn’t been a prank… the guy was just doing it to show the flaws in the system. I’d say he succeeded.

7. Basmati Rice

Here’s where it starts to get nasty. A Texas company called RiceTec (way to make rice sound antiseptic and intimidating) was awarded a patent for basmati, allowing them control over all US production and forcing farmers to pay a fee if they grow or sell it. Unfortunately, this strand of rice happens to be the major food source for a large chunk of South Asia. It took several years, but Indian farmers were finally able to prove that the rice claimed by RiceTec had already been around for centuries. Crazy, no?

6. Anything with the word “Monster” in it.

If Skeletor was a corporation, he would be Monster Cable(TM). We’ll overlook the fact that they charge up to 10x the price for equipment that is identical to everything else out there… we’ll even overlook the fact that they sue their competitors simply for making decent-looking audio cables. We’re going to focus on the fact that they have upheld their trademark by taking action against every brand that uses the word Monster in it. This includes (I’m not making this up):, Disney (for Monster’s Inc), the Monster Vintage clothing store, Monster Energy Drink, the Monster Seats at Fenway Park, and a local putting green called Monster Golf.

5. The idea of an “Avatar”

We’re back into the realm of actual patents now, with a gem from… apparently, in the year 2000, they were awarded a patent for the concept of an online avatar… and just this year, they’ve announced plans to start enforcing it. This is a great example of a patent which is insanely broad, and can only hurt creativity in a field. How many different online games and services would be squashed if this got upheld? We’d all be playing World of Warcraft through a sweet new email interface.

4. M. Genitalium

First, let me put you at ease: your nutsack has not been trademarked. Some scientists working on the Minimal Genome Project have been working on creating the most basic lifeform possible. That’s pretty cool. What’s less cool is that they have placed a patent on this baseline species, and they have allegedly done so before it’s even been finished.

At least it’s just a bacteria, right? Oh wait…

3. The Harvard Mouse

Nope. Harvard fiddled with mouse DNA and claimed a patent on the “oncomouse” that resulted. Keep in mind, we’re not talking about the process for MAKING this little guy… the species itself is the protected property of Harvard in the US and Europe (Canada overturned the app). The decision explicitly excluded the patenting of altered humans, but that didn’t stop us from patenting…

2. The Human Genome

Check out the link… one fifth of human genes are already patented. There’s a gold rush going on at this very moment… if you discover a sequence and show how it can be used, it’s your intellectual property, even if it exists in millions of people. So if anyone wants to use, modify or treat a sequence in the human body that controls aging, they have to pay a hefty fee to someone who located it.

That is a far cry from Happy Birthday.

So what could top patenting the building blocks of life itself, the reproducible code which COMPOSES the brains which came up with the notion of intellectual property in the first place?

1. Patent Trolling

This is the reason I wrote the Top Ten List in the first place, a patent which eats its own tail and just keeps chewing. While all the patents I’ve mentioned so far are ridiculous, at least they are all rooted in invention and production. Leave it to Halliburton to come up with the most awful patent of them all.

To paraphrase the app as I understand it: Halliburton (yes, that Halliburton) has patented the idea of finding great ideas (“trade secrets”) that are used but not patented. Then they patent them (without knowing how the things they are filing for even work) and throw some lawyers at the company that came up with the idea in the first place in hopes of reaching a hefty cash settlement.

Yes, really. The U.S. patent system, developed 200-odd years ago to help inventors share trade secrets, has finally reached its bizarre sci-fi-logical conclusion.

They are patenting the abuse of the patent system.

Jamie Antonisse

I was born on a Tuesday.

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. JeremyKotin says:

    Absolutely fascinating. It’s amazing how many things slip through the cracks. You should definitely read “The Telephone Gambit” which very concretely challenges Alexander Graham Bell’s claim to the patent for the telephone against Elisha Gray. It’s a well written bit of narrative history on patent law, a quick read and absolutely nuts to think that Bell got away with it…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *