By Barry Fox Patents were introduced to protect new ideas, and give inventors time to develop them without anyone else copying what they came up with. They have been the foundation of technological development in many countries for hundreds of years. Every nation has its own patent laws and patent office which “examines” applications from inventors and their lawyers. If an application meets their criteria a patent is granted that gives the inventor a legal monopoly for a limited time, in most places 20 years. Once that expires anyone can use the idea and it cannot be patented again. Patent libraries store ever-growing collections of all the patents ever published that are free for anyone to access. Only ideas protected by government secrecy acts are not available to view, but usually surface later. Although there is no world patent office, the European Patent Office in Munich, Germany, issues patents that cover most European states. And the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, speeds the issuing of patents in multiple countries. In recent years the number of patent applications has exploded, leading to heavy workloads for examiners and sometimes delays in making decisions. Other arrangements exist to protect less technical ideas. Registered trade marks protect the way a business identifies itself or its services, for example a name or logo, for as long as the owner pays renewal fees. For more than 50 years New Scientist has maintained exclusive rights to its name, for example. Registered designs exist to protect visual and ornamental features. Copyright gives long-lasting free and automatic exclusive rights to a work you have created. It can protect some technical innovations such as lines of computer code, but not ideas or concepts. Trade secrets are not enshrined in law, but are carefully guarded commercial information, protected using contracts and civil law to prevent people telling others. Although it’s convenient to talk of patenting an “idea”, patents are not usually granted on brainwaves or business plans, but only on practical devices or systems. The exception is the US where almost anything can now be patented, including business plans and ideas for new software. Plans to introduce similar rules to Europe have met strong opposition. Apart from inventions that are obviously impossible, like perpetual motion machines, anything can win a granted patent. In fact it can be easier for wild ideas: the patent examiner searching previous patents for “prior art” is less likely to find it. A “good” patent protects a novel idea for which there is, or will be, a commercial demand. Patents that no one will ever want to use, say a nuclear-powered corkscrew, are in practice worthless. It costs money to apply for a patent and more money to keep it in force. Patent offices charge fees to examine, grant and renew patents. Inventors usually pay patent attorneys too because of the complexities involved in writing patent applications. These are a careful mix of legal and technical wording. The legal scope of the document is defined by the “claims” at the end, while the main body of the application is there to back up those claims. Applications that are too broad, for instance claiming monopoly on the wheel, will be rejected. Inventors must avoid that while still protecting an extensive scope of ideas. For example, patenting a “wheel with blue spots” that makes a pattern as it rotates would not prevent anyone making a similar wheel with red spots. Using the phrase “light-reflecting spots” might prevent that from happening. You might think the spots are an idea worth patenting – but it’s already too late. Any idea published, in print or online or even provably talked about openly cannot be patented. Some inventors don’t want, or can’t afford, to patent their ideas and purposely publish a full description of their ideas. Doing that in an obscure place – “prophylactic publication” – can reduce the chance anyone else will use the idea but still prevent others from patenting it. Other people, dubbed patent trolls, spend money only on patent applications, not on developing ideas. These “armchair” patents lie dormant until the troll can claim damages if anyone starts work on a similar idea. Battles over patents, like this one over the Walkman, can be expensive and lengthy. It’s probably fair to say that New Scientist pioneered the idea of a regular patent watch, beginning in the 1970s in print and more recently online. Since the explosion in personal computing and gadgets, reporting on patents has become a mainstay of many publications tracking developments from companies like Apple. And now patent offices have gone electronic, anyone can dive in. The largest patent issuers, the US, European and World patent offices all let you search and explore patents and patent applications online. But finding surprising patents is difficult because they tend to come from unknown names and, by definition, you don’t know what you are looking for. The best method is to dive in and speed read some of the thousands of new patent applications published each week from the largest offices. Over the years that has brought to light otherwise unknown ideas that are important, chilling and entertaining. For example, patented ideas blocking internet phone calls are now the object of an Electronic Frontier Foundation campaign. Other finds like this one for pocket gadgets with radioactive batteries are less likely to come to fruition. To keep up with the several new finds we make every week, visit our rolling special report or point your RSS reader to this feed (what is RSS?