Everyday patents?
October 27, 2010 7:24 AM   Subscribe

What are some well-known products that have no competition because of patents? Or great features that are exclusive because of patents? (No prescription drugs, because that would be a huge list.)
posted by smackfu to Law & Government (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
With Apple's multitouch patent, no other competing device has managed to come close to the same (phenomenal) touch screen user experience.
posted by litnerd at 7:28 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by empath at 7:32 AM on October 27, 2010

Meant to link that. SawStop
posted by empath at 7:32 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Lots of Apple stuff.

Paice LLC holds the patented system for a high-voltage method to power gas- electric hybrid cars. Toyota got busted for infringing on this patent.
posted by Siena at 7:45 AM on October 27, 2010

What are some well-known products that have no competition

Other than pharmaceuticals, I can't think of any products that have no competition because of patents. Apple has lots of patents, but it also has lots of competition.

It is more common for companies to license a patent than to use it to try to utterly stifle competition. For example, Amazon licensed the one-click patent to other companies.

That's not the case in pharma, where there are lots of unique drugs that don't have competitors, e.g. provigil, which is under patent protection for another year or two.
posted by alms at 7:55 AM on October 27, 2010

The multi-touch patent isn't a good example as several competitors have cross-licensed it and are using it. All the android devices I've used have supported it since late last year.

The problem with this question is that companies that could potentially be hurt by patents have a patent arsenal of their own and simply do a cross-license agreement. These deals are usually done in secret so we don't know what Apple traded Google for or vice versa.

The other issue is that you'll often see people work around a patent in ways that are non-obvious. NTP has a patent on wirelessly exchanging email transparently. Thats why so many phones come with "Sent via my ..." sig by default (which may not be enough to keep jurors from handing out large settlements). That means its no longer transparent, but NTP still holds a license on a pretty broad set of and IMHO ridiculous patents with tons of prior art. Note that NTP won 620 million dollars in their settlement with Blackberry and have open lawsuits against pretty much everyone in the mobile space. Blackberry now has an agreement with NTP to license these patents.

Its pretty rare for a complete consumer good to be protected by one patent. That would be an overreaching patent and most goods are protected by several patents for very specific things. You can't patent "computers" but you can patent a novel interface or method. Pharmaceuticals are an exception because they typically consist of one substance and that substance, if novel, can be patented outright.

Lastly, its a little crazy to actually use a patent for the purposes of protecting something. Its much more profitable to let others abuse it and sue them, get a large settlement, and finally force them into an agreement. This is why we see so many lawsuits and agreements and not so many judgments to stop production of a consumer good. I think the idea that "You can't make a blah-blah because I own a patent on it" is a very 18th century idea and doesn't reflect how things are done today (patent lawsuits, submarine patents, patent trolling, patent arsenals, licensing, agreements, etc).
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:58 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

In a sense the Robertson screw drive is exclusive to Canada on account of patent licensing issues, although the patents expired long ago and it's not really exclusive to Canada, just relatively unknown and obscure in the states.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:00 AM on October 27, 2010

posted by bottlebrushtree at 8:24 AM on October 27, 2010

To discuss in general why this is a difficult question to answer: patent owners aren't normally after monopolies. They want to get the patent so that the can license the technology to others. This is especially true with the rise of the technology transfer industry. Universities design technologies, and tech transfer shops help them to patent and market them.

Company also enter into patent sharing pools when each company hold a patent to a piece of a certain larger piece of technology. This happened in the old radio days, when all the major players held a patent to what, taken together, would make the best radio. So they had to pool the patents and divide up the royalties. As you can read here, this stuff is still going on.
posted by hiteleven at 8:30 AM on October 27, 2010

To add to my post, imagine giant public technology company x that owned all sorts of patents. Now let's say that other companies were chomping at the bit to pay gobs of money to license x's technology. Do you really think the shareholders of x would think it was all right if x turned down these offers? Remember that shareholders think short-term in general, not long-term. So even if this licensing did some damage to x with regards to its competitors down the road, that's too far over the horizon to worry about.

I suppose there might be a crazed loner out there who is holding onto his/her patent like a cherished treasure, but odds are the patent is worthless anyway. Search on "perpetual motion machine" in Google Patents and see all the hilarious results you get.
posted by hiteleven at 8:36 AM on October 27, 2010

Response by poster: I agree that most patents are not used for exclusive use of technology, but that doesn't really answer my question of ones that are.
posted by smackfu at 8:55 AM on October 27, 2010

Search on "perpetual motion machine" in Google Patents and see all the hilarious results you get.

There are lots of applications for perpetual motion machines, but the Patent Office does not grant patents for them.

Anyway, it depends on how you define competition. Do you mean no one but the patentee implements the patented invention (e.g., only the patentee makes the hypothetical Killomatic Mouse Trap)? Or do you mean the much rarer situation where the patented invention has no competition in the market (e.g., the Killomatic is the only mouse killing device sold)? I assume you mean the former, as the latter either requires a patented technology to be so good that it kills off all existing competition, which is especially difficult because they got to the market first, or the patented technology created an entirely new market, which is pretty rare because of the incremental nature of technological development.

So assuming you mean the first situation, by definition, a patent is the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering to sell, or importing the claimed invention. 35 USC 271. So as long as a patentee does not license the patent and it is not being infringed, then the patentee has no competition (or, put another way, the great feature is exclusive to the patentee).

But this is actually relatively uncommon compared to the number of patents in force. First, many patented inventions go unimplemented (e.g., it turns out not to be marketable or competitive). Second, of those that are implemented, many are licensed. Third, of those that are unlicensed, patentees often ignore low-value infringers (e.g. free and open source software, garage tinkerers). Fourth, patents are not transnational, and many patentees do not seek patents beyond a handful of jurisdictions, so there is often competition in other jurisdictions and grey-market importing into jurisdictions where the invention is patented.

Anyway, Apple's MagSafe power adapter is a good example. Apple owns the patents, does not license them, and vigorously enforces them against attempted uses by others.
posted by jedicus at 9:06 AM on October 27, 2010

Polaroid corporation was in this position in the 60's through the 90's. Their instant-film technology was patented nine ways through friday, and they didn't license any of them.

(Then they got blindsided by digital cameras.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:19 AM on October 27, 2010

Until a few years ago, biscuit joiners, both the power tool and the actual wood joiners, were patent protected. Ever wondered if there was a better way to hold furniture together than those cheap dowels that never seemed to work? Biscuit joiners are that technology.

Unfortunately, Lamello, the inventors' company, wanted the market to themselves. With a clever series of interlocking patents, they were able to keep the machines a very highly-priced specialty item. They were thus almost completely unused until recently. A lot of cheap furniture was made even more crappy by high patent fees.

Now you can't walk into the tool section of you local home supply store without seen a dozen or so different models from all the usual suspects. But that's because the last of Lamello patents have finally expired.
posted by bonehead at 9:27 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another good example: Xerox tried to wrap up the plain paper xerography market in the late 60s & early 70s. Then the FTC sued for antitrust violations, Xerox was forced to license its patents to all comers [3.6MB pdf], and its share of the plain paper copier market went from nearly 100% to 14% in four years.
posted by jedicus at 9:31 AM on October 27, 2010

Until a few years ago, biscuit joiners, both the power tool and the actual wood joiners, were patent protected...They were thus almost completely unused until recently.

Here's a 1990 issue of American Woodworker that says "Biscuit joiners have been around for some 30 years, but they have become popular only in the past ten now that competitive pricing has brought costs to an affordable level." This suggests they were commonly used since 1980 or so, and the market was competitive by that time as well. The book referenced in that review, published in 1989, refers to Porter Cable, Lamello, and 'generic' biscuit joiner brands.

I submit that while Lamello may have tied up the market for a while, the market has been competitive for decades. A cursory search also doesn't turn up much evidence for a clever series of interlocking patents. I see only two US patents assigned to Lamello, both of them recent and presumably still in force. I see no US patents with Hermann Steiner (the inventor of biscuit joinery) listed as the inventor. Can you point to some hard evidence of that strategy?
posted by jedicus at 9:53 AM on October 27, 2010

See here under "biscuit joiners" for the timeline. Lamello is their more recent name, they've use others previously. Early 90's was the time when the patents were starting to run out. That's when I remember first hearing about biscuit joints at all, because of the Porter Cable machines.
posted by bonehead at 10:10 AM on October 27, 2010

Lamello is their more recent name, they've use others previously.

I don't see any US patents assigned to Steiner-Lamello, either, which is the only other name given in your source.

Early 90's was the time when the patents were starting to run out.

Your source says nothing about biscuit joiner patents. Furthermore your source says "In 1982, the Spanish firm Virutex began fabricating the 0-81 joiner, a high-quality fixed-angle joiner for about half the price of the Lamello Top." So that fits the American Woodworker book review's assertion that prices and the market were competitive beginning in the early 80s.

This 1988 Popular Science article refers to the Elu biscuit joiner being available in 1985, at 60% of the price of the Lamello Top.

I'm just not seeing anything to support your assertion, and I'm seeing a lot to support the notion that competition in the biscuit joiner market was not adversely affected by patents or, to the extent it was, it hasn't been for almost 30 years.
posted by jedicus at 10:23 AM on October 27, 2010

Modista.com (Projects, MeFi) used visual search to help you shop for shoes. It was awesome and could help you find what you were looking for in just a few clicks.

Like.com apparently thought that shopping for shoes should be a painful, frustrating, ugly, and ultimately fruitless experience, so they used a patent infringement claim to shut Modista down.

Like.com isn't linked because a) it's awful, and b) they're shitty little weasels. Not that I'm bitter or anything.
posted by stefanie at 10:36 AM on October 27, 2010

There's mention of the patent protection of his products here, in an obit to Steiner.
posted by bonehead at 10:38 AM on October 27, 2010

There's mention of the patent protection of his products here, in an obit to Steiner.

That source says "the patent." This other source mentions "the original patent" and says it expired in the 1980s. So, again, no evidence of a clever series of interlocking patents, just one, and the market was competitive earlier than originally asserted.

I think the biscuit joiner still fits the asker's criteria, but an accurate description is important.
posted by jedicus at 10:51 AM on October 27, 2010

The Monsanto Round-up Ready Soybean.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:10 AM on October 27, 2010

If we can look for historical examples, I think Velcro might meet your criteria. As I recall, at least in the US, it was exclusively manufactured by one company until the patent expired.
posted by nomisxid at 11:16 AM on October 27, 2010

And the related OncomouseTM. Wikipaedia, Nature Biotech (subscription only), The Scientist.
posted by bonehead at 11:16 AM on October 27, 2010

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