Transparent Patents

A look at the continuing problem of the patent office and its poor judgement.

A look at the continuing problem of the patent office and its poor judgement.


“The attempts through the years to get a broader, looser conception of patents than the Constitution contemplates have been persistent. The Patent Office, like most administrative agencies, has looked with favor on the opportunity which the exercise of discretion affords to expand its own jurisdiction. And so it has placed a host of gadgets under the armour of patents…gadgets that obviously have had no place in the constitutional scheme of advancing scientific knowledge.”

– Justice William O. Douglas
A&P Tea Co. v. Supermarket Corp., 340 U.S. 147 (1950)

Justice Douglas was outraged. The Patent Office had been issuing a series of specious patents including ones for doorknobs made of clay rather than metal or wood, an oval rather than cylindrical toilet paper roll to facilitate tearing off strips, a method for exercising a cat by shining a bright light in front of it and making it jump around, and a method for buying goods with one click.

Whoa, Nellie, back the wagon up. The last two didn’t make the list of the Honorable Justice, but they certainly have made a lot of other prominent lists.

What’s wrong with the Patent Office? How can they possibly continue to issue such obvious, inane patents? Many people point to the need for reform of the patent laws ranging from abolishing patents altogether to a reexamination of patents, particularly business method patents such as 1-Click® buying on the Internet.

Bad patents are indeed the “debris of Cyberspace” as Lawrence Lessig says in a notable article in The Standard. This debris introduces noise in our intellectual property system: bad patents do not advance science; they retard it by confusing inventors and muddying the database of prior art.


Author: Carl Malamud – Webchick

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