10 Bizarrely Successful Attempts To Patent Life Itself

Have you ever thought about owning a camera, and maybe even taking pictures of things with it? Well you’re too late, Amazon thought of it first, and now they own it. Check out Amazon’s latest stride in innovation: Patent 8,676,045, the Studio Arrangement, granted in March by the United States Patent & Trademark Office. The breakthrough consists of:

a background comprising a white cyclorama;

a front light source positioned in a longitudinal axis intersecting the background, the longitudinal axis further being substantially perpendicular to a surface of the white cyclorama;

an elevated platform positioned between the image capture position and the background in the longitudinal axis, the front light source being directed toward a subjected on the elevated platform

The rest of the 27 claims describe how to illuminate an object against a white background to establish optimal conditions for creating a detailed impression of said object by way of electromagnetic radiation image-capture—i.e. stock photography.

Filed in late 2011 and granted weeks too early for April fools, some lawyers somewhere made a lot of money. Assessment fees, application fees, provisional filing fees, non-provisional filing fees and other lawyerly locutions to get a patent published generally amount to over $10,000 dollars and usually much more. So yes, there’s big business around calling dibs in America.

While the patent system tries to maintain incentives to keep genuine innovation the heart of business, of course nobody, not even the US Department of Commerce, is perfect. Over the years USPTO has awarded intellectual property rights to some less than intellectual claims — not stupid ideas exactly, rather ideas so basic they're not ideas at all. These 10 are real examples of calling dibs on just... existence.

10 “Halloween treat carrier” i.e. a container you can put candy in


“A Halloween treat carrier comprising a container having thereon a Halloween design, wherein the container and/or the Halloween design comprises a glow-in-the-dark material.”

This receptacle can, as receptacles are wont to do from time to time, hold Halloween candy. The real x-factor is the container has thereon a Halloween design which may or may not glow in the dark. The patent file designates a target market of “illuminated Halloween articles” which have historically been “quite complex, involving light bulbs, batteries, and the like”. So basically, this inventor began at an idea—namely, “complex” Halloween contraptions that employ light bulbs and batteries—and worked backwards to nothing.

9 “Method of swinging on a swing” i.e. physics

“…a user positioned on a standard swing suspended by two chains from a substantially horizontal tree branch induces side to side motion by pulling alternately on one chain and then the other.”

Rather than kick your feet forward and back, this guy and probably every other nine year old realized you can inspire the swing to move side by side using your physical attunement with the universe. And thanks to his lawyers who somehow wrote four claims out of one word—swinging—he patented the phenomenon in 2002. We hope he isn’t running around his local playgrounds slapping little kids with cease and desists.

8 “Disposable boxer shorts” i.e. boxer shorts

“The need for clean underwear is almost universal.”

The brilliance of this patent is manifold. On one hand it stakes claims on disposability, which happens to be a feature of everything that exists. Then it also illuminates the procedure for making boxer shorts (“…a crotch between leg portions…a seam to form a fly...) except out of “strong tissue paper”, which is a lot like patenting tissue paper. And finally there’s the metaphysical challenge to every single patent ever issued: If we have a thing made of tissue paper and the very same thing not made of tissue paper, are they still the very same thing?

7 “Animal toy” i.e. a stick

“Clearly, such an apparatus would be a useful and desirable device.”

Contained in this patent are the specifications for the ideal stick replica—a “main section” with “at least one protrusion extending therefrom” that can float and optionally glow in the dark. This creation solves the problem of animal toys previously unwieldy by dog mouth, animal toys that struggle with buoyancy and amphibiousness, and animal toys that lack phosphorescence. While the perfect solution to two of these problems has already existed for millions of years in the form of sticks, the third only came about after this 21st century flash of genius.

6 “Plug for and method of patching a hole in a wall” i.e. common sense

“A hole in a wall is easily and quickly repaired by use of a precisely formed plug.”

To the envy of all handymen and contractors, this guy had a eureka moment for an infallible method of fixing holes in walls involving making a plug for a given hole in a wall and then replacing said hole with the plug (“plugging a hole”, if you will). According to the claims, the system involves forming a plug “preferably made from a lightweight plastic or foam material, such as Styrofoam, or the like”, and using it to trace a larger hole to cut around the original hole, such that the formed plug can now seamlessly fill the new hole.

Yup, sounds like plugging a hole.

5 “Scriptured outdoor furniture” i.e. furniture with words on it

“An umbrella, said umbrella having a canopy and a post, said canopy disposed on said post, said post having a first end and a second end, said canopy disposed on said second end of said post...”

Before we go insane pondering the physical form of the umbrella, let’s ask: Wherein lies this patent’s novelty? Is it this particular combination of furniture that includes “a chair, said chair having a back thereon”? Or is it “the scripture display and scenic illustration disposed on said back of said chair”? More likely, it’s the sheer boldness in trying to patent the Holy Bible and the concept of furniture at the same time.

4 “Carry out food container” i.e. every Styrofoam container

“The hinge enables pivoting movement of the lid relative to the tray between an open position and a closed position.”

Not so much an idea as an attempt to describe every detail of Styrofoam take-out containers using as many words as possible, the defining trait of this one—the only conceivable reason USPTO granted it—is the wax paper comes pre-attached to the container. Even if you considered wax paper an essential part of the take-out process, which you probably don't, apparently gluing two things that are usually together anyways qualifies as ingenuity.

3 The caapi vine i.e. nature

“I claim:

1. The new and unique Banisteriopsis caapi plant substantially as described and illustrated.”

The main raw ingredient to make ayahuasca—the most powerful psychedelic concoction you’ll never try—has been dibbed by biopirate Loren S. Miller. In 1986, the USPTO said “screw it” and gave Miller a patent literally designating him the inventor of an Amazonian rainforest plant, despite the fact that Miller isn’t God and indigenous groups have been using the caapi vine for ritual medicine since 500 BC. Naturally, the Amazonians protested to save their culture from patent rape. They succeeded in having it revoked in 1999, upon which Miller fired back with a prickish technicality: Patent law in 1986, before it changed to not be so obviously dumb and terrible, forbade any third-party objections to granted patents. So USPTO couldn’t enforce the new ruling. Luckily Miller’s patent expired anyway in 2003.

2 Bread refreshing method i.e. breakfast

“As known by members of many households, there comes a time when bread products, such as rolls, buns, loaves, muffins and the like, lose their freshness…”

Patent 6,080,436 sounds reasonable enough as you start reading it: A method of refreshing bread products using an oven with high intensity infrared radiation, exposed for a period of 3 to 90 seconds as appropriate, so it then becomes more pleasant to bite and chew — right, we can totally see that. Sounds a lot better than making toa—wait a second!

1 System and method for enhancing productivity i.e. time

“The observation is that if an hour were shorter, by a small amount, we would be more focused, and accomplish the same amount of work, but in less real time, thereby increasing productivity.”

Not to be outdone by Amazon’s patent ridiculousness, back in 2009 IBM secured one for — this is totally serious — spending less time in business meetings. The patent tackles the endemic problem of meetings which “could have taken less than an hour” going longer because of an “arbitrary hour-based scheduling paradigm”. Yes, they patented the very idea of simply deciding to adjourn a meeting when it’s actually over, rather than when the schedule says it is. IBM: Thinking outside the box since 2009.

More in Technology