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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Inside Big Tech’s Race to Patent Everything

In 2020, three coworkers and I threw together a three-page outline of a patent idea, rife with typos, and turned it over to our big tech employer. In exchange, we each got a $700 bonus. The proposal took maybe half an hour to write and less than five minutes to present to an internal review board of specialists who were also our peers. We joked around, the board voted yes, and we emailed the file to an in-house legal team. A little more than a year later, our application for carbon footprint tracker was published.

It’s typical for a company to assume ownership of the intellectual property developed by its employees. But, in my experience, proposed patents didn’t need to be groundbreaking or even relevant to the business to gain traction. Carbon footprint tracker had nothing to do with my job or any proprietary technology. Some of my coworkers had up to 100 patents under their names, covering everything from video games to finding better parking spots to coffee delivery via drone.

This isn’t unusual at big tech companies. Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Cisco, Google, Intel, Meta, and Microsoft, among others, have employee patent recognition programs. The incentives vary, but these tech giants offer even entry-level employees cash rewards and free access to a team of patent attorneys, services worth “an estimated value of $50,000,” according to Microsoft’s informational page.

Payouts to inventor-employees typically start at about $500 but might go into the thousands for ascending stages of a patent’s lifecycle. Most corporations offer rewards for any idea worth patenting, regardless of whether it is ultimately granted or rejected. According to internal documentation, Apple offers up to $4,000 per inventor per filing. Others hold off on a big payout until a patent is granted, a process that usually takes years and ends in success for only about half of patents submitted to the US Patent and Trademark Office. Google pays employee inventors a whopping $10,000 at this milestone, according to internal sources. (Google did not respond to requests for comment.)

I proposed more than a dozen potential patents through my company’s process and received a framed certificate for my efforts, made out to Fatty Nut Watkins, which I submitted as my name just to see if they would print it. Patenting was lucrative, easy, and downright fun.

Prior to the tech revolution, it would have been difficult for corporations to manage an internal system for fast, casual, crowdsourced patenting. A decade ago, the USPTO handled only about half as many patents as it does today. Applications had to be filed by individual inventors, which shut employers out at a crucial step. This changed in 2011, when the passage of the Leahy–Smith America Invents Act streamlined the process and enabled companies like my (now former) employer to file patents on behalf of an employee inventor.

Around the same time, tech giants became increasingly interested in patents. As Steve Jobs reportedly said at the invention of the first iPhone, “we’re going to patent it all.” And patent it all Apple did—right down to the slide-to-unlock feature and beveled edges. In 2011, Google’s top lawyer, David Drummond, claimed that the average smartphone might be protected by up to 250,000 patent claims. Today, no one seems able to get an accurate count, but last month’s sale of all “legacy patents” from Blackberry’s terminated smartphone business fetched $600 million.

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Perhaps this explains why the patent office has been swamped by a two- to three-year backlog of applications since 2012. Carbon footprint tracker was published 18 months after we applied, as most patent applications are, but it could be years before I know whether I’ve been formally granted a patent. The USPTO receives about 650,000 patent applications annually and issues grants to about 350,000, according to recent numbers, so my odds are only a little better than half.

Big Tech accumulates IP for traditional legal protection, of course, but modern strategies often extend the use of the patents to new frontiers. Some patents are held in reserve, just in case they come in handy someday. Others are wielded as competitive weapons in lawsuits against rivals. Patents have also recently proved profitable for dodging bankruptcy and trading with other companies.

These unconventional strategies have led tech entities to generate a wealth of, well, weird patents. In the last year, Meta patented apparatus, systems, and methods for finishing a yarned strap; Apple patented a line of retail displays and floor tiles; and Sony patented the exclusive right to turn a banana into a game controller. My personal favorite is Google’s walking stick.

It’s not just Big Tech. There’s a cult following for the work of Salvatore Pais, an engineer at the US Department of Defense who appears on patents for far-fetched laser-augmented turbojets, quantum communication systems, and electromagnetic fields “permeating the fabric of Spacetime.” The federal government is among the top recipients of patents each year.

Carbon footprint tracker is, at best, tangentially related to my former employer’s business goals. It outlines a method for online shoppers to select environmentally conscious shipping options—and yet was sponsored by a business-facing, digitally based tech firm. The most obvious explanation for this is that companies are essentially throwing patents at the wall to see what sticks. Meta’s head of patents echoes this sentiment on the company’s news blog: “Many of our patents are never incorporated into our products or services, but rather focus on future-looking technology and features.”

Headlines are quick to call out “6 crazy Amazon ideas that will (probably) never see the light of day,” but the operative word here is “probably.” Amazon’s ideas might appear laughable at a glance, but not entirely infeasible. Underground tunnels, blimp-carried warehouses, delivery drone hive towers, robots that can throw packages with perfect accuracy, AR goggles for fulfillment centers, and underwater storage facilities are just goofy enough—and not beyond the realm of possibility.

Outlandish patents aren’t necessarily careless or subversive, just somewhat implausible. In today’s unpredictable technological landscape, corporations may have a good reason to entertain the possibilities. If any of Amazon’s imagined futures play out, it will have paid a small price for an incalculable market advantage. If you’re not convinced, consider that Microsoft also has an artificial reef data center.

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Another possible explanation for bizarre patents is that companies are rushing to claim ownership of every minute detail of their technologies—not to protect the technology itself but to encapsulate and shield the full experience of a corporate brand.

From a customer-experience perspective, it’s easy to see why Apple, with stores that generate more revenue per square foot than any other retailer, would hire a team of art directors, attorneys, and designers to patent the construction of every retail shelf, floor tile, and even the bags for customer purchases. It might seem like overkill, but those patents are invaluable in preserving and protecting Apple’s market-leading brand.

According to Alan Fisch of Fisch Sigler, a leading patent litigation firm in Washington, DC, “patenting is one way for a company to differentiate itself. Patents can protect innovation, create licensing value, advance a brand, and reward innovators—all of which contributes to a larger corporate identity.”

If not used to reinforce a brand image, patents can also be general-purpose marketing material. Especially at big tech companies, where a culture of bleeding-edge innovation is key and research budgets ascend into the billions, a robust IP portfolio indicates a company at the forefront of ingenuity. Some companies award inventors a trophy, such as Microsoft’s iconic Patent Cube or Amazon’s Blue Puzzle Piece. IBM even has a designated job subtitle for prolific patent writers, “master inventor,” which can be spotted across LinkedIn.

Cisco has regular Patentathons (hackathons, but for patents) and an annual April Fool’s Patent Contest, where engineers are asked to submit “goofy” patents just to see what might come of them. In a Q&A about the event, Cisco’s vice president of intellectual property, Dan Lang, says “the ability to illustrate how employees are able to work on creative, innovative projects alongside inspiring colleagues and managers truly sets a company apart.”

I suspect that carbon footprint tracker was deemed viable largely for its potential as an environmentally friendly marketing asset. Eco-patents have become useful virtue signals for any company seeking to cultivate a green-conscious brand. Overall, most companies “have some kind of strategic goal in mind,” says Eric Goldman, associate dean for research at Santa Clara University Law School.“They know they’re sending signals to the public.”

There are currently more than 3 million patents in force in the United States and an incalculable number of agendas at play. It’s easy to understand why a fledgling startup might pursue one, quality patent to protect its livelihood and sway first investors; it’s harder to speculate over the purposes of the 8,500-odd patents granted to IBM and Samsung last year. There is, of course, a lot of money at stake. In recent years, the top two patent-infringement cases ended with Cisco and Intel each coughing up approximately $2 billion in damages. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of participants in such cases are big tech companies. No matter how you slice it, Big Tech is the biggest investor and the most inscrutable player in the patent game.

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I quit patenting altogether shortly after filing paperwork for carbon footprint tracker. I was concerned that I had unintentionally provided Big Tech with a weapon that could be leveraged in court against the very technology I hoped to create. But the assumption that patents are purely tools for litigation is an oversimplification. Modern patenting strategies touch on everything from encapsulating a user experience to corporate marketing initiatives. It’s hard to predict how the myriad of arbitrary patents in circulation might be implemented, but, between the enterprising nature of Big Tech and the wide range of tactics in play, it seems inevitable that someday, somehow, even the most outlandish patents will be put to use.


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