Poking Fun at Patents


By B. Collins

When I got my review copy of Daniel Wright’s Patently Silly (First Lyons Press, 2009), I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The small, square book based on Wright’s patentlysilly.com Web site contains some 200 of the most ludicrous, hilarious contemporary patents the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office has ever granted.

Cordless jump rope. Check.

Spinal cord removal tool with adjustable blades. Check.

Vibrating, body-piercing jewelry. Ch-ch-ch-check.

Complete with patent number citations and divided into 11 chapters, from health and hygiene to religion and death, Wright’s book often delves deep into the patently prurient. Almost every section contains patents involving bodily functions or ways to improve or manipulate various body parts. Yes, there is a patent for a reclining toilet. And the “Self-Administered Two-Handled Probe for Treating Prostatitis, patent # US 7077817,” should not be viewed during meals.

Yet the author merely is working with abundant material the USPTO has to offer – he ain’t making this stuff up.

Wright is a stand-up comedian with an engineering degree who informs readers he once searched USPTO archives to conduct prior art research for his boss. He says in the introduction that he has looked at more than half a million patents.

Thankfully, he has put his comedic and research acumen to splendid use.

Consider this entry: “Method for Introducing a Powdered Substance Into a Nostril, patent # US 6811543.”

“A straw for introducing a powdered substance into a nostril? Surely this was invented in the 80s. By the way, I love the use of the word ‘introducing’ here. ‘Nostril, meet cocaine. Cocaine, nostril.’”

For the record, this patent was filed in 2002 and granted Nov. 2, 2004.

Wright delights in ridicule, and given the absurdity of the patents showcased in his book, a collection of the ridiculous would be enough to justify the listed $14.95 retail price. But Wright’s work also is educational.

To receive a patent, he notes at the outset, “an invention has to be deemed useful, unique and unobvious.

“Undoubtedly,” he adds, “to have one’s work certified by a government agency as entirely new in the history of human civilization must inflate the ego …. And that’s where I come in to pop the bubble.”

Indeed, Wright could have pricked a little more. Patently Silly is an understated indictment of the U.S. patent system. Should examiners really be devoting time to evaluating lap dance liners for men’s underwear or thong diapers?

There were about 1.2 million total pending applications last year, with the backlog trending up.

Patently Silly, without coming out and saying so, makes a case for creating another tier for non-examined patents (see Patent Reform: Nothing But a Pipe Dream? May 2009). Each patent listed in Wright’s book consumed time and resources of the overworked, cash-strapped USPTO.

Perhaps the time has come to divert certain patent applications into a lesser category – one that merely registers inventions that are not likely to be commercially viable. Maybe institute an absurdity test. This would free patent examiners to evaluate valid inventions and innovations.

Such reform, of course, would take serious government action.

Until then, we can always marvel at the truly odd array of intellectual property housed in our nation’s growing collection of patently silly patents.