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Show HN: Explore ideas whose patent protection expires today (patentsexpiringtoday.com)
546 points by niko001 on Jan 3, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 142 comments

The majority [1] of patents are never commercially exploited or licensed - I wanted a way to browse recently expired patents to find hidden gems and get inspired by existing inventions. The site uses the recently released USPTO-API [2] to fetch newly expired patents each day.

NB: The reason the most recent patents displayed are from 12/31 is because no new patents were granted during the first few days of January 1997.

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/danielfisher/2014/06/18/13633/#7...

[2] http://www.patentsview.org/api

I run Google Patents (patents.google.com) - we've thought about including a way to search by expired patents (we have the expiration indicators), but in my opinion it gives a false sense of security. There's also http://freeip.mtu.edu/home/index.php, which searches over only expired patents.

The patent in question could have been improved upon, and that improvement can still be in force. Say someone patents a widget A + B, and later files a continuation A + B + C (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuing_patent_application). The first patent could be expired, but while building your copy of A + B you might come to the same conclusion that the invention also needs to include C (which is still in force) to actually work.

Google Patents focuses on improving patent quality. There's still uncertainty if a granted patent is actually valid. If we can improve the prior art finding process for inventors and examiners, then fewer overly-broad patents will be granted, and it will be easier to tell if an invention actually infringes a patent.

Then we can start to think about making patent information more useful for part of the original purpose - as a transfer of knowledge to the public domain in exchange for a temporary exclusive right.

Thanks for chiming in, Ian! Google Patents is awesome :-)! You're right, there are a number of edge cases where the expiry date is incorrect - the USPTO even provides a patent expiry calculator [1] (as an Excel file, no less ;)...). For patents issued 20 years ago, the "issue date + 20 years" should hold true as a very basic rule of thumb (disregarding any improvements that may still be in force). I hope that nobody builds a business based on one of the displayed patents without first checking what other, newer patents may also affect said invention - the site is merely meant as a starting point to get inspired; the actual research should follow suit.

[1]: https://www.uspto.gov/patent/laws-and-regulations/patent-ter...

> Say someone patents a widget A + B, and later files a continuation A + B + C (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuing_patent_application). The first patent could be expired, but while building your copy of A + B you might come to the same conclusion that the invention also needs to include C (which is still in force) to actually work.

This is a perfect example of why patents are harmful. The patent on C did not in any way help the person copying A + B, it was invented on its own. But now this new person can be punished simply for being equally as creative as the other guy. It's a huge disincentive on innovation. I understand the theory behind patents, but I have a really hard time believing anyone in history has ever actually used a patent to find out how a thing was made and then improved on it; or could not have done this equally as easy without patents. Even if you can point to one or two such examples, that still has to more than balance out the loss in innovation and increased legal costs created by uncertainty of IP legality.

This solar sail patent http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=H... was educational to me (at some other site which showed the figures too) -- but it's literally the only time that's ever happened in my multi-decade career. It's written in a more helpful style than usual, and undoubtedly never saw commercial use in its lifetime. I would not have even looked if it were a patent in my own field.

Without patents, inventing would not be profitable. All products would have exact copycats and ripoffs.

The majority of software companies don't hold any patents (aside of copyrights). As such, it doesn't seem necessary that patents are the only means to profit from "inventing."

But as you say, they have intellectual property protection. Isn't the copyright protection that software developers get over their software analogous in this sense to the protection that patent owners get over their inventions?

Unless you just meant to split hairs over copyright vs. patent, in which case I agree. I should have said something like "intellectual property protection" instead of "patents".

Patents and copyright work quite differently and patents aren't really appropriate for software. Patents allow you to be too granular in what you protect to make sense for software. I think a good comparison would be protecting combinations of two musical notes in music. This would dramatically impact creation of new songs because you are protecting something too trivial. The equivalent happened when software patents first were introduced.

I feel like you're attacking our specific implementation of patents (and especially software patents) in America. I'm talking about the idea of copy protection. Is it an incorrect assertion that in a world without any copy protection, people would be free to copy any invention they wanted? Thus, the original inventors' version of the product (which would be exactly the same as the copied version) would have no differentiating factors, and there would be no guarantee of profit from invention.

Yes, there are a lot of flaws in copy protection. There are a lot of instances where patent trolls and patents are detrimental to innovation.

But the main point that I was originally making was: Wouldn't a world without copy protection be a world where every invention gets literally copied, resulting in lesser gains for the actual inventors?

I think you may have misunderstood me: I did not mean to support software patents or our current implementation of software patents at all. Instead, I was countering the gp assertion that (patents are rare in the software world + software world doesn't have rampant issues with ripoffs) implies that patents are not necessary to profit off of inventing. My counterargument was that the software world may not have many patents, but it does still have copyright, and thus their counterargument does not invalidate my overall point/question: "copy protection is necessary in order to not have a world full of ripoffs"

Yes, that's a very different point that I mostly agree with. In addition the secrecy that also gets caused by rampant copying also would be/was a massive issue and was the driving force behind the introduction of patents. Of course patenting "XOR" and protecting the stupid mouse forever are a totally different issue as you pointed out.

I don't think I believe you. That's the theory of course, but I haven't lived in a society without patents so I can only trust people who say that's how it works.

My mental heuristic says that software engineering seems like it would be only improved by patents not existing. I can't speak to hardware inventions, though.

It could be, however, if you limited patent lifetime to reasonable market turnover rates. Say, a year or two. It's enough to establish the brand, and after that, competition is healthy.

Patents were meant to be a carrot - a way to enrich society with inventions by hacking the market to incentivize it. Instead, companies now are given a free carrot factory, so they can (and do) show middle finger to society and profit off inventions while keeping them away from people for a very long time.

>Google Patents focuses on improving patent quality. //

Could you go in to that a bit. There's been fulltext, full image databases with proximity searching and bespoke classifications and such for a while, how has Google Patents improved on that. How is it better than Espacenet for example?

When I looked at patents a lot the biggest help would probably have been being able to get decent translations of Korean/Japanese/Chinese/etc. patents - I gather you were involved in an EPO project to do that. What other goodies have I missed?

>but while building your copy of A + B you might come to the same conclusion //

Worth noting is that this is fine in most jurisdictions as long as your not trying to commercialise the build.

I think they meant improving the quality of actual patents (by giving people tools to combat bogus patents), not necessarily improving on the patent browsing experience (though I'm sure they would argue that they try to do that too).

Great insight on continuing patent applications. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment that overly broad patents, particularly with respect to technology, need serious review. It is way too easy to patent a concept instead of an invention.

An example to illustrate my point is a patent such as this: http://www.google.com/patents/US20140244001

Which basically says, I haven't actually invented anything useful, but if anyone else does they should have to pay me because I thought of something super generic first.

Why wouldn't the continuation (or CIP as you might have meant) expire at the same time as the original? Same priority date, so unless it's old enough to fall under the 17-years-from-issuance regime...

BC under old rule, the term was 17 years from issue date (not filing date)

Yeah but that changed a long time ago. There aren't many patents still in force that have a term calculated under the old rule.

Thank you for the great work. It's very useful.

You run Google Patents? Where is the comment jar?

Yes, it would be great if patents could have user comments associated with them.

(The same can be said for publications in google scholar, perhaps you could pass it on to the appropriate team)

thanks for the great work and insightful comments! what are the top three things you would do if you could reform the patent system? and do you support/oppose abolishing patents for software (or any other kinds of products)?

Can you share your email? I'd like to reach out to you.

Great work with this, I can see it providing me hours of entertainment. Obligatory what's the stack?

Thanks, I'm glad you like it :)

I've kept it really simple - the patentsview.org API spits out JSON, which I'm feeding into the (awesome!) DataTables jQuery-plugin. The site is hosted on GitHub Pages. I'm planning a HN-style voting system so that interesting patents trickle to the top.

Are you planning on having a feature to pick a range of days, so that I can seen what expired over the last week?

datatables is fantastic, almost always a better solution than native html tables for any non-trivial information display

2017, when "really simple" is a jQuery plugin. ;)

After all, right now the perceived norm is to send all your 100Mb/day of data through a kafkaesk array of message queues, stream processors and map-reduce jobs.

Gotta have that sweet sweet Big Data.

Simple from a development point of view.

I just had a cow-orker ask me if I know any Angular, because he wants to display a single value in browser from a sensor attached to Raspberry Pi.

So yes, jQuery plugin is pretty damn simple for 2017.

This is amazing work! I wonder if you've been actively using patents as your source of ideas? It seems like an unnatural path to go down, looking for ideas.

- So no one can re-patent the expired patents?

- If you build and sell a product based on one of these, you don't have to worry about getting sued? (but at the same time you have no protection against cheap clones of your product either?)

"So no one can re-patent the expired patents?"

Correct. To get a new patent, your invention by novel and unobvious. If it has been patented before, it will not be novel when attempting to "re-patent" it. Therefore, re-patenting is not possible.

Furthermore, lots of things are considered "not novel" or "obvious" by nearly every expert in the field, but not by patent examiners. But one specific area which patent examiners are VERY good at reviewing is old patents. So re-patenting old patented inventions becomes impossible, not only in theory but in practice also.

It's not that they are very good at it - it's that this is typically all they are going to be looking at. They're also better (and have better tools) at searching patent databases than nearly anyone who doesn't do this daily.

>this is typically all they are going to be looking at. //

Are you referring to the USPTO there, do you have a source?

Just going by what several specialists (e.g. patent agents, ex examiners) have told me independently. It does match my experience in office actions with many different examiners, for whatever that's worth.

Prior art.

I posted your site on reddit, someone is complaining that many patents are renewed and potentially not listed on your site.


If you can do something about it it's cool otherwise well, still not bad.

This would be even more helpful if you could do X days in advance of expiration rather than day of expiration.

Doing god's work.

Fellow hackers, a word of advice... always start with the marketing before building a product.

I too think a power actuated toilet seat sounds like a fantastic foundation for a business, but it's what the market things... not what your gut thinks.

what the market (or anyone for the matter) thinks is not what drives the hacker mindset. The moment science, hackers and other kind of free thinkers start narrowing their ideas because of market or XYZ acceptance we're toasted.

It's the entrepreneur mindset that you're talking about, which equally rare and valuable :-)

The entrepreneur is just a hacker/scientist/free thinker who deals with a few extra constraints.

Just like an artist is a free thinker who deals with a few less constraints.

It's not the constraints that change, but the goal as well.

For a hacker/scientist, the goal is that the solution must work. For an entrepreneur who embraced the entrepreneurial mindset, what matters is if the solution sells well. Those two goals are very often at odds with each other.

The problem is that if everyone optimizes for the market value, we'll all drown in bullshit.

> I too think a power actuated toilet seat sounds like a fantastic foundation for a business

I take it you haven't been to Japan or the more trendy hotels and condos in China (where Japanese stuff are significant influence). In this comment, you appear to be equally gut based on what appears to be Western cultural influence.

I'm not sure if all this discussion about gut is meant to be a play on words or not, given the context of a toilet seat.

Actually something like that is on sale (at least here in Italy).

A video:


I'm trying to understand what it does by looking at pictures and reading this description but I have no idea: https://patents.google.com/patent/US5588162 is it just raising and lowering toilet seat based on input? So I can sit on toilet manipulate some handle and it will lower my seat level?

> 1. Field of the Invention

The present invention relates generally to devices for assisting infirm or injured individuals to move from a standing position to a sitting position and from a sitting position to a standing position. More particularly, the instant invention is directed to a toilet seat which is configured to assist infirm individuals in lowering themselves to and raising themselves from the sitting position.

Sounds like a toilet version of a riser chair such as [0], which I could see being really useful for people.

[0] - http://stairlift-suppliers.co.uk/mobility-aids/riser-recline... (no association with them whatsoever, just first site I found)

I would be willing to bet that the inventor thought the same - "hey, here's a perfect invention - I'll be rich" - he might have even built a working prototype in his garage.

Then he spent $$$$ on getting the patent - this isn't cheap - my brother-in-law went thru this, and getting a lawyer and such, having it drawn up, written properly...it cost him $25k easily...

...and then this inventor probably shopped it around to the various mobility equipment companies. All of them likely said "no". It wouldn't surprise me to find that one or more of them came out with (or imported) a similar "invention"! That happened with my brother-in-law's invention...

Regardless, now these device manufacturers - if they haven't already - are possibly all scrambling to be the first to market with such an "invention", and hailing it as a welcome and needed innovation for the elderly and infirm. They'll make a ton of money off of it.

None of it will go to the inventor, and 20 years have passed where more than one person could have used this, and probably died in the meantime wishing for something like this every time they went to the restroom.

Don't say this is a fanciful flight - it happens; it happened with my brother-in-law. Toyota infringed on it, but he didn't have the money to fight it. He did manage to get Bell from importing an infringing device (settled out of court). Ultimately, what he gained barely covered what he spent over the years. This is how the patent game is played in some regard: If the "little guy" patents it, he doesn't get anything, unless he manages to market and produce it himself. Large players or other companies aren't interested, they can just "wait" - or go ahead and infringe and the original inventor can't do anything. Unless that inventor is another large company.

It's a very frustrating system for the lone guy working in his garage; it's no wonder that many of these guys just release things as open-source hardware, or in some other similar fashion. They know that if they don't, it will never get produced. If they try to produce it, Chinese manufacturers will copy it and sell it in no time. If they patent it, they'll spend a ton of money, and gain nothing - or large companies will just outsource it and import it, or infringe in other ways - or just sit on it, and wait for the patent to run out.

I wish it were different - but that's our patent system - it doesn't reward the small guy any longer.

On a different note - something that I wish could be automated would be a tool or something to help properly write patents. If you read enough of them, you realize that they have a very special, very convoluted "language" and "syntax" - specifically designed (?) to detail the invention and construction thereof of the invention, while detailing how it is fundamentally different from similar devices, how it improves upon them, and how each part works and interacts with other parts.

It seems like something that could be automated - or at least computer assisted? As it stands, to get these written requires experts in the field, patent attorneys, copy writers, etc - it isn't something an ordinary person can easily do without a ton of study (and they will likely get it wrong, causing the patent to be rejected, or worse - to pass with a ton of holes in it that can be exploited). As such, it is part of the process that makes getting a patent very expensive (the government fees and such are small potatoes - that isn't what makes getting a patent expensive, but rather the need for technical patent copy writers and drafting specialists for drawings).

Well, if a large corporation infringes on your patent, in theory your patent is now valuable to its competitors as a "weapon" for their "patent arsenal".

"Mole Gassing Device"- https://patents.google.com/patent/US5588252

Brilliant stuff.

This is one of the better written patents I have seen.

The mechanism is massively overcomplicated. It almost looks like a joke.

It looks like the design goal was "How can I turn a traditional mousetrap into a humane mousetrap?" There would be more efficient ways to build the same product from scratch, but it's a fun thought experiment.

There’s far simpler, already existing humane mouse traps. Where you have a small cage with an opening at one side, the opening as door pulled up against a spring which would push it down, and then locked with a lever. If the mouse touches the cheese, the spring-release of that activates the lever of the door, and traps the mouse in.


I've seen this being sold at a local big-name hardware store.

Huh. Work firewall won't let me access. I'm assuming that the problem is the domain: "patent sex piringtoday.com".

I think it's time to stop taking jobs with firewalls like this.

The ironic thing is, these jobs tend to pay the best.

I took a 3x pay increase to move away from the overly-restrictive firewall. YMMV.

Next project: Patent fetish site? ;)

Coming soon: the sister site softwarepatentsborntoday.com listing all software patents starting today that will stifle innovation for the next 17 years

I actually want to explore patents whose protection expires in the time I need to implement them.

Perhaps 6 months would be a good compromise.

I have to say I like this; personally, it will probably just be entertainment for me (like I need more distractions), but I can easily see it being useful for others. Great job!

One suggestion - can you put the page selector at the top of the list as well (and maybe add an option to allow more than 10 items on the list)? That was just a small thing I noticed...

Awesome site, this is the best one today. https://patents.google.com/patent/US5588175

Word of warning, privacy services like Privacy Badger and Decentraleyes block the data tables cdn your using so your users using those services see no data at all

Foot vacuum, interesting.

The patents expiring today website seems to have a simple view of patent expiry, based on 20 years from publication date. The legal expiry date is more complex, and often much earlier.

The patent owner is required to pay maintenance fees [1]. Google patents shows this information under "Legal Events". In this patent, the owner allowed the patent to lapse after 3 years, but eventually petitioned the office for reinstatement and paid the tolls for the 3rd and 7th years. One might expect that this patent term actually expired 11 years after filing, in 2006.

Some patents are given a patent term adjustment (extension) based on administrative delay not caused by patentee. Other patents have their expiry tied to another patent by terminal disclaimer. The USPTO provides a calculator (Excel spreadsheet, meh) for calculating, and additional explanations. [2]. This patent doesn't appear to be subject to term extension or terminal disclaimer.

This patent's term is more complex because the Uruguay Rounds Agreement Act significantly changed the rules for patent terms, for patents filed after June 7, 1995. This patent falls into one of the exceptions. This is described somewhat in the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure section 2701. [3]

The original website is a very interesting concept. It could be even more interesting by incorporating more rules about patent expiry, allowing filters on patents allowed to go expired, patents that were revived, and so on. It would require incorporating additional information from the USPTO Public Pair database.

[1] https://www.uspto.gov/patents-maintaining-patent/maintain-yo...


[3] https://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/pac/mpep/s2701.html

You're quite right--determining a patent's expiration date in the general case is a very involved inquiry. And even after it appears to be expired for failure to pay maintenance fees, it can sometimes be revived...

Thanks for spotting that! I'll switch it over to S3/CloudFront soon

This is epic. Love it. I'm going to share this with others. I see this as a great way to learn about patents in general, and as a way to get inspiration for new ideas. I've always found patents fascinating, even if they're a little over-hyped as a business moat. Ask Apple. Have any of their ideas from their beginning until now, not been copied? Windows GUI vs Mac OS GUI, iPhone vs Galaxy, Android vs iOS.

But I still think patents are at least stimulating to read and apply for. It's proof of invention, which I still think is pretty cool and useful.

Those shoes were actually great: https://patents.google.com/patent/US5588227

Ha, I also liked those shoes. Looks like the patent for the competing Reebok Pump also expired a few years ago: https://patents.google.com/patent/US5113599A . It's interesting to see that LA Gear filed for their Regulators patent 1 month before Reebok was granted the Pump patent.

Finally, after years of stifling innovation, the power actuated toilet seat is public domain.

This is a great idea! There are undoubtedly many great solutions to be found through here that were either before their time, or simply ignored after filing.

Great work!

This is a great way to find ideas that have all their obvious improvements covered by newer patents, and get sued anyway.

Is there an analogous service for copyrighted works? "Explore books whose copyright expires today"?

Unfortunately, if you live in the US, the answer is nothing: https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2017/pre-197

"no published works will enter our public domain until 2019."

I can't believe that this was a patent [1]. Surgical gown? Really? In 1995? A suit with a ventilator? [1] https://patents.google.com/patent/US5588153

How about this one, a shirt with reflective material on it! https://patents.google.com/patent/US5588156

This patent, owned by George S. Panton, Jr., also includes Pants.

Edit: Mr. Panton, firmly rooted in the clothing industry, has other inventions, like this spandex necktie: https://patents.google.com/patent/US4839925A/en?inventor=Geo....

An expired patent is of public domain or it is just free to be patented again by another person?

It's public domain, see also:


The idea of a patent is that for a given number of years your invention is protected, even if public, you cannot re-patent it "as is" (as it would not be anymore new or non-obvious) but you can sometimes patent a derivative (like an improvement of the same base idea).

The generic issue may be that often behind something there can be a number of patents, often interlinked, so it is far from easy to determine whether you can "use" that expired patent.

Would that apply to very old technology like 8-bit CPUs and support chips? Would it apply to old operating systems like CP/M?

I heard of some people making a toy that had expired patents on it that was a hit in the 1970s or 1980s like Rubics Cube, Mood Rings, Tinker Toys, etc.

The whole point of the patent system is to make sure ideas aren't locked up so we can advance as a society (something the Copyright office has forgotten), so once they expire they are in the Public Domain forever.

This is not the only point of the patent system: you seem to think that any good patents could have been kept as trade secrets.

But that's not the case. Sometimes there would be no way to use a patent as a trade secret, because, for example, it's simply given to the consumer and they can see how it works, easily.

So another important point is to allow people to research and innovate and make it to market under a state-granted monopoly, in exchange for and to encourage doing so.

As an example, suppose there existed a configuration of plastic that easily enabled xyz - but nobody has 'invented' or researched this configuration. If there really is no prior art, then someone could take the time to invent and patent it, and then sell it at a price that both recoups the cost of their invention, and also acts as an incentive for them to have done so in the first place.

This is not theoretical. The cable tie is a great invention. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it:

>The idea of the cable tie came to Logan while touring a Boeing aircraft manufacturing facility in 1956. Aircraft wiring was a cumbersome and detailed undertaking, involving thousands of feet of wire organized on sheets of 50-foot long plywood and held in place with knotted, waxcoated, braided nylon cord. Each knot had to be pulled tight by wrapping the cord around one's finger which sometimes cut the operator's fingers until they developed thick calluses or "hamburger hands." Logan was convinced there had to be an easier, more forgiving, way to accomplish this critical task.

>For the next couple of years, Logan experimented with various tools and materials. On June 24, 1958, a patent for the Ty-Rap cable tie was submitted.

In other words (if I'm reading it right) from 1958 until 1978 he had a monopoly on making those cheap plastic things. Then it was over.

Today, (and for the past 45 years) everyone could make that piece of plastic easily and cheaply.

Bu the KEY thing is "For the next couple of years, Logan experimented with various tools and materials. " -- THAT'S what the patent system enables.

He would have had zero incentive to do so if he had not had a patent on the invention, for the next few years. People might have "hamburger hands", to this day. Trade secret has nothing to do with it.

I think what jandrese meant is that's the whole point of the modern patent system with fixed expirations.

This is as opposed to the earlier system of letters patent, which had the advantages you cite but no requirement of invention or fixed term; Elizabeth I of England, for example, famously issued a patent for salt.

well it's no use speculating on what someone else meant, but the expirations are part of the incentive: it's not that if you figure out a new configuration, you get it FOREVER. You get it for twenty years. So it's a limited reward - just enough to motivate you. It goes right along with Congress's constitutional mandate:

>To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

Although this perhaps confuses things by mixing copyright into it.

By the way I think in this day and age, patents should be for 5-7 years. Not twenty and certainly not longer. innovation has sped up.

but anyway the whole idea is that to promote the progress of useful arts - so the incentive has to be just big enough to cause that promotion...

No the whole point is to avoid this trade secret nonsense. Get the good ideas out into the public sphere and yet still reward the people who came up with them by giving them a limited window to monetize the ideas. Once the window is up everybody else is free to improve upon the ideas freely, avoiding licensing hell and also making sure inventors that get lucky can't just sit on their thumbs for the rest of their lives milking their one good idea. Or in the case of Copyrights, letting their great great grandchildren sit on their butts and milk the invention.

Excessive use of trade secrets leads you down the road of middle age trade guilds that had to jealously guard their skills and could spend more energy keeping their secrets than advancing their arts.

Public domain.

I was randomly clicking and found this one: https://patents.google.com/patent/US5588162

The Legal events at the bottom says it expired in 2001. Seems strange?

Thanks for the feedback :)!

The patent in question was granted on 1996-12-31, which means it should have expired on 2016-12-31. The status on Google Patents says "Expired - Fee Related" so I'm guessing they didn't pay a required fee somewhere down the line?

Unlike copyrights, patents don't have an invariable lifetime: they have to be renewed, usually for an increasing fee. In the US, the schedule of maintenance fees is:

    (A) Three years and 6 months after grant, $980.
    (B) Seven years and 6 months after grant, $2,480.
    (C) Eleven years and 6 months after grant, $4,110.
This allows patents that are not being profitably exploited to lapse early.

> This allows patents that are not being profitably exploited to lapse early

It also allows larger companies to sit back, and wait out small inventors to "give up" on a patent (due to it becoming too expensive to renew) that they are trying to sell to these same companies.

You might ask, though, why would somebody invent something that they didn't then market and manufacture themselves? Well - it happens, more often than not: Some inventions are created by hard work, sometimes at a large expense to a lone inventor, sometimes not, or a prototype or model can be made to illustrate the invention (which I don't think is a requirement anymore (?), but used to be) - but a full-scale implementation is beyond the inventor's finances or capabilities.

So they try to shop the patent around to companies or investors to get it to market. Sometimes, they succeed - and they sell it or otherwise license it out - and make a lot of money in the process. But often, these other parties just elect to "wait it out" - for the whole 20 years of the potential patent life if needed. In other words, rather than help someone else gain from their hard work and idea(s), and bring something to fill a possible need to market, they would rather "save that money" and wait it out - then when it expires, suddenly "bring a new device" to the market (perhaps even with their own extra patented bits attached to foil others!). All of this is legal, of course - nothing says these companies -must- purchase or license patents - but I personally find it a distasteful side-effect.

I posted another comment earlier on this - about something which happened in a similar manner to my brother-in-law. In his case, his up-front costs consisted of not only creating prototypes, but also having to create them by having a company manufacture plastic injection-molding molds for these prototypes - this wasn't cheap then, and still isn't cheap today. Today, though, it would be easier and cheaper for him to just 3D print his prototypes - but that wasn't the case back in the 1970s when he was working on his invention.

Between those costs, and the costs to patent and renew the patent over its life, he only broke even (roughly) after settling out-of-court with Bell when we found them infringing on the patent by importing infringing devices from a Chinese-based company (we were in a Walmart one day, and saw them being sold in the store).

It also allows larger companies to sit back, and wait out small inventors to "give up" on a patent (due to it becoming too expensive to renew) that they are trying to sell to these same companies

This does not seem realistic. If you can't afford the $900 to renew a patent after 3 years, you likely can't afford to produce the patented device either.

Further, your example doesn't hold water. If I'm (an executive at) Toyota, and someone offers to license or sell outright a patent for $X, I stand to make $ZX if I agree to it, or $0 for 20 years if I don't.

So either $ZX isn't enough profit to move my needle, or I flat out just don't care about the product. Either way, I have no interest in pursuing it. It's not about "saving money:" even in the most old-school of industries, I can't imagine that waiting 20 years for an unrealized patent to expire makes any sense if it would be profitable to license it.

It's far more likely that either (a) the patent isn't particularly useful or (b) the owner is asking too high a license fee.

The thing is, my brother-in-law was able to afford and renew the patent for it's entire lifetime, until it expired. But he couldn't afford to manufacture it, nor market it properly.

To be honest, he didn't have the knowledge or understanding of these things (he's a heavy equipment operator and one of the best welders I know). He's not the best at math or spelling, but he's smarter and more motivated than many people I have come into contact with. At the same time, he's naive about some things, and a bit unworldly and unaware about others.

If the patent wasn't particularly useful, then why did Toyota and Bell both infringe upon it? For this particular invention, my brother-in-law holds two patents; the second building on the first. His patents build upon, and reference earlier patents that describe similar solutions to the problem at hand, and how his is a better solution, etc.

Now - you may be wondering what kind of device is this - so I'll tell you: It an answer (maybe not a perfect one, of course) to the question of "how do you keep your drinks cold in the summer, and hot in the winter, inside your car?"

His answer was a cupholder designed to be fitted in front of the air-conditioning vents of the automobile. Cold air in the summer from A/C to cool the drink, warm air in the winter from the heater to keep the drink warm. Do you not think that is useful?

Toyota - in the 1980s when my brother-in-law's patent was still valid - made several models of vehicle with a slide-out cupholder in front of the A/C vents which infringes my brother-in-law's patent (it clearly anticipates such a system). I own a 1996 GMC C1500 pickup which has a similar vent-located cupholder (and was sold during the time my BIL's patent was in effect). I'm sure that you've seen similar cupholders as well.

Bell imported and distributed (to Walmart mainly) clip-on cupholders from Chinese manufacturers which essentially were duplicates of the designs in his patents; I still have his original prototype, plus the examples we obtained from Walmart and used in the court proceedings which led to a settlement with Bell.

My brother-in-law never approached either company with an offer - they infringed before he even thought about it; he found out about it after the fact. So - if the patents weren't for a useful product, then why were they infringed upon by at least three (Toyota, Bell, and GMC) separate companies?

Couldn't they have simply sent a letter or something to my BIL to offer to license it instead, and help him as a small-time inventor? Yes - they could have. Instead, they chose the more profitable solution, knowing that the "small guy" wouldn't be able to afford the time or money to fight it.

I had no idea, thanks for sharing this.

You aren't calculating patent terms correctly. For patents filed before June 8, 1995, the patent is valid for the longer of 20 years from filing or 17 years from granting.

Patents filed after June 8, 1995, it's 20 years from filing dating.

All of this is shortened if the patent claims priority to an earlier patent.

And it's possible to get an extension under § 156 of the Patent Act.

The USPTO has a calculator but you have to know quite a bit about patents to effectively use it. https://www.uspto.gov/patent/laws-and-regulations/patent-ter...

Say it's expired early for not paying fees. Still hard to know what the actual legal state is.

The site lists them by filing grant date plus 20 years, which is on the safer option when compared to premature expirations which might be fought in court.

It's really hard to know when a patent will expire or has expired. Figuring out the relevant priority date is complicated, especially when foreign applications are involved. We're still in the region where you have to worry about the June 8, 1995 rules change. Patents whose prosecution took an unusually long amount of time can still be granted a term extension. Re-issued patents can complicate things even more. I've known patent attorneys who will consult with another lawyer more well-versed in the intricacies involved rather than trust their own ability to figure it all out.

I've seen the legal status listed on http://portal.uspto.gov/pair/PublicPair be literally years out of date, and I don't know of any way to ask the US PTO if a given patent is expired. I was hoping this site had figured out something I didn't know.

When it matters, make sure to consult your lawyer.

I had thought of doing something like this. I thought it would be great to have countdowns for popular patents such as the one Apple uses for MagSafe, as these would mark dates of "freedom" that would benefit the consumer.

Now I can safely launch my "decorative stone encrusted zipper teeth" [1] startup!

[1] https://patents.google.com/patent/US5588185

This exists.

My wife had one of those zippers on a white overshirt/sweater thing. It actually looked nice. It matched the drawings exactly.

I like this one - backpack vacuum cleaner. https://patents.google.com/patent/US5588177

I'm pretty sure the people who clean my office use one of these...

Does anyone think there are viable/profitable business ideas in there? If the original inventors didn't bother to build something out of it, I wonder if it's because the patents themselves are "good thought experiments" or if the inventors lacked the business wherewithal to make it happen.

Most definitely. In my experience ideas are rarely valuable by themselves. Rather an idea is valuable when implemented by someone who have what it takes to see it through.

Simply put, not a lot of people have what it takes just because they filed a patent.

At least the ideas are put on record and able to be accessed by someone who could see it through once the patent has expired, which fortunately is a reasonable amount of time.

Sometimes the idea can be good, but the originator isn't capable of turning it into more. As just about any VC will tell you, the idea is just step 1.

This IBM patent is practical and viable: https://patents.google.com/patent/US5588199

You get interesting things when you type Linux[0].

[0] - https://patents.google.com/?q=linux

Question: Aren't Android phones a violation of this [0]?

[0] - https://patents.google.com/patent/US20040244008A1/en?q=linux

Using the instructions I previously provided on how to investigate patents[0], it can be seen that this is a patent application (not an actual patent), and its status is "Abandoned -- Failure to Respond to an Office Action" after a non-final rejection in 2008. This doesn't say anything about whether or not they refiled or not, just that this application was abandoned, and never granted.

So save some trouble, the application number is "10/797557"

Edit: Even more context. This application was rejected on claims 1-4 due to "rejected under 35 USC 102(b) as being anticipated by IBM RedBook, 'Linux For S/360', 2000", and claim 5 is rejected under 35 USC 102(c) from the same source.

[0] - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12981882

I'm so curious, what's your lead source/ is there a USPTO API feed that you're parsing?

Check out IPStreet.com


Check out IPStreet.com

Is it just me (it's not) or are 80% of these fairly trivial?

Patents don't make sense when you think about it.

The thing about a lot of inventions is that they do sometimes look "trivial" after the fact; in other words, things look really simple once its been done!

Most inventions (and patents reflect this) are actually small improvements to certain parts of other inventions, which improve the system in such a manner as to be considered a patentable item of their own. As such, they tend to be small things, which when you look at them after the fact, seem to be obvious.

Maybe they were - but only to a particular person, who may also be somewhat versed in the art, and also willing to spend the money and time doing the "invention", who also doesn't think (or is aware) that nobody else has done the invention before (often, sometimes you might see something, and go "hey - this could be improved if they did this" - then think "but somebody has probably already done it, it is so simple" - and you never follow up - which if you had, you would have found that nobody did! Because they all thought the same thing!).

We see this often in software (also, there is the correlating idea of software that - after it is made and is popular - seemed too stupid for it to succeed before it did - Twitter, anyone?) - that there is a need for something, but everything thinks that either it has already been done, or that a new version wouldn't be substantially different or better than what is already out there - and so it doesn't get developed.

...Until someone does develop it - then we look at it, and smack our foreheads thinking "It is so obvious!" or "It is so simple!" or "I thought of that years ago!"

Maybe you did, or maybe it is - but you weren't the guy who followed up on it (or in many cases, you might actually follow up on it - but the market doesn't care or want it at that point - only to find that a decade or more later, that's when the market wants it - and someone else does it, while you aren't looking).

I once designed a system that, I latter realized, would infringe over 100 patents.

Am I supposed to make my design worse just because other people thought of these things first?

No. You make it even better by working around those patents.

Or you license it from the patent holders

This is crazy.

Welcome to civilization today. Enjoy!

I thought the same. It's interesting that this kind of comment gets downvoted without explanation. Is there some kind of culture on HN that implicitly forbids us to voice criticism?

It's not constructive, at all. "When you think about it"? Well, I tought about it, and patents are useful for their stated purpose.

They seem trivial now, 20 some odd years after the fact.

I once wanted to build a system, and decided to browse through patents. I realized that my system would easily infringe 100+ of patents. Many of them were actually very recent.

Ok? That doesn't really disagree with my point.

What if my human body infringes a parent?

I think a convincing case could be made that the human body is prior art.

Are you reading the claims, or just the titles?

I thought all domain names with the word "sex" in them were already taken.

Time for some word2vec to explore them without having to crawl through them manually

IP Street's got you covered. Semantic patent search as an api service.

Good idea - perhaps you should patent it!

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