Companies are filing overly broad patents on obvious ideas in the hope that one day the technology will become feasible.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that “the quality of patent filings has fallen dramatically over the past two decades. The rush to protect even minor improvements in products or services is overburdening patent offices. This slows the time to market for true innovations and reduces the potential for breakthrough inventions.”


The OECD measures patent quality by the number of times a patent is cited as “prior art” in another patent – showing its importance to the inventor community as a whole. On this basis, they found that US, German and Japanese patents “produced about 70 per cent of the top 1 per cent of highly cited patents between 1996 and 2000, but their share had fallen to 60% five years later.”

Google has this year bought 2000 software patents from IBM (a good few shelves’ worth and twice as many as Thomas Edison ever filed). It is also buying Motorola’s cellphone division and its portfolio of 17,000 wireless-centric patents. It’s part of the search engine’s attempt to defend against patent lawsuits in the US, where high volumes of low quality patents have led to the magic of human inventiveness being replaced oftentimes by “non practising entities” – companies who file overly broad patents on obvious ideas in the hope that one day the technology will become feasible, allowing them to pounce and sue. And it’s forcing firms to act defensively, salami-slicing their innovations and filing patents on almost imperceptibly tiny improvements.

A lowering of quality is no surprise – a cursory glance through US patent applications every Thursday reveals heaps of obvious ideas. Why is IBM trying to patent the partitioning of software in case it contains malware, for instance? That’s a well known idea. What’s curious here is that the US recently celebrated the issuance of its 8 millionth patent. But with the US deficit at $14 trillion, many more of them need to genuinely innovative – there’s no point garnering a feel-good-factor by filling ever-longer shelves with low quality patents.

Photo credit: News by Afterdawn

Via New Scientist