Where have you gone, Thomas Edison?

Culture and technology.
Jan. 2 2007 12:21 PM

Google Patent Overload

The scope of human invention depresses me.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Three weeks ago, Google introduced its new search service, Google Patents. The jokes followed pretty much immediately. Unmentionable medical devices were dragged into the cold light of day. Sex toys and flatulence deodorizers were uncovered and mocked. The inventors of the bong, the keggerator, and the Nerf football were celebrated. It was as though a band of drunken Sigma Chis had crashed a party for patent lawyers.

Now that the buzz is wearing off, it's time to ask what Google Patents is actually good for. The wizards of Mountain View have stated that their corporate ethos is to organize all of human knowledge. But why is it that Google's search technology often seems like a killer app for ending pointless conversations? With the debut of Google Patents, a question from a cubicle mate along the line of, "Do you think my American Idol board game idea will make me rich?" can be answered with the near-universal reply, "I don't know. Google it."

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Technically, Google's newest search service is information regifting. The Google Patents database holds drawings and descriptions of the approximately 7 million patents that have been granted by the U.S. Patent Office since 1790. All of them have been available at the official USPO site for some time now. What Google has done is give this data a user-friendly search interface and prominent placement at the crossroads of the Internet. But it's hard to ignore the mercenary whiff in the air: Let's throw up something with vague usefulness and see if the people come (and then advertise to them).

Rummaging around Google's patents archive, I was simultaneously depressed and uplifted by the scope of human invention—a lot like how I feel at a garage sale. I found the first patent, an improvement to locomotives "by which the evil effects of frost, ice, and snow, and mud on the rail are obviated" (issued to John Ruggles of Thomaston, in the state of Maine, in 1836). Further digging showed, however, that the earliest patents were destroyed in a fire, and are referred to as X-patents. The real No. 1, from 1790, details a method of making pot ash (not what it sounds like). The impression given by these X-patents is that early America was a Republican's dream: a place populated by can-do tinkerers and entrepreneurs striving to fine-tune the agrarian and mechanical world around them. On closer examination, that vision becomes complicated. Many patents were issued to immigrants who still claimed their countries of origin as their hometowns.

One of the original purposes of the U.S. Patent Office was to share information about inventions. For that reason, an application typically contains a drawing, an explanation of how the device works, and various "claims" for why it's a new development. Google Patents can feel like an electronic pile of someone else's tedious paperwork, brimming with valuable cultural snapshots. Consider Patent No. 586165, a Victorian gem issued in 1897 to John J. Dougherty of Paterson, N.J., for an "Ornamental Screen for Ladies' Bicycle-Saddles." Dougherty noticed a problem with ladies on bikes: "The clothing of the rider, while it may be arranged for comfort, frequently may not be arranged to avoid attracting attention and criticism." His fan, which attached to the back of a seat, is a little monument to the morals of the time, and to the burgeoning athleticism of women.

The assumption behind Google Patents is that it will somehow spur invention in our own time, but bloggers have already pointed out that Google's search engine misses results. Serious inventors will want to use more established methods (or even one of those patent lawyers) to see where their idea stands. And, while the cute 1994 patent for the "Finger puppet" that appears on the Google Patent home page suggests that there's still room for the little guy, corporations dominate the patent scene. Worse, for every John Q. American who dreams up a new golf gadget, there are a host of "invention marketing firms" standing by to fleece him of his money. A 2000 Time article tells of a Texas man who thought up a rural tornado warning system only to lose $13,000 to predatory companies. Sections of books like The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cashing in on Your Invention describe how to avoid getting ripped off. In the early '90s, the FTC went after these firms with "Operation Mousetrap," but they're still around, waiting to dupe the innocent inventor blinded by the brilliance of her idea.

Judging from inventor sites and magazines such as Inventors' Digest and America's Inventor, these people are not easily daunted. Stories of failure-then-success are passed around inventor circles like a joint at a high-school prom: Did you know that Michael Jordan did not make the varsity basketball team his sophomore year? Or that Einstein flunked his math class? The authors of Inventing for Dummies nakedly point out that only 7 percent of patent owners make enough profit to recoup the money they spend on the patent application. The most realistic shot at success for the "independent inventor" apparently lies in the toy business. To enter into this subculture is to be familiar with the work of Larry Reiner, who invented G.I. Joe, and Richard James, who became rich off the Slinky but left it all behind to join a religious cult in Bolivia. Somewhere in the land, the next Beanie Baby, Cabbage Patch Kid, Connect Four, or Super Soaker awaits its Edison.

In the meantime, the rest of us can sit back and play armchair sociologist. Economist Craig Depken pointed out that there is a correlation between a sport's popularity and the number of patented inventions for it. (A crude search suggests that golf is No. 1 in terms of the total number of patents, followed by weightlifting, bicycle riding, fishing, and exercise walking.) Those poster children for patent abuse, aka the "Sealed crustless sandwich" and the "Method and apparatus for automatically exercising a curious animal" have been paraded again for public shaming. Celebrity inventors include Mark Twain, who has a few inventions to his name, as does John Dos Passos (a toy bubble gun!) and Zeppo Marx. But if you want to join the great American tradition of the quick buck and the winning long shot, skip the invention game. Here's a better, free, unpatented idea: Buy some stock in a company with the ticker symbol GOOG.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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