Wild and crazy patents

Patent protection has been granted over the years to some truly off-the-wall ideas, including a hair comb-over and basmati rice. Some that seemed like shoo-ins at the time were later overturned, including the famed ENIAC computer.

The comb-over (1977)

In its abstract, patent number 4,022,227 explains its, um, invention:

"A method of styling hair to cover partial baldness using only the hair on a person's head. The hair styling requires dividing a person's hair into three sections and carefully folding one section over another."

We figure that Mr. Trump probably does his 'do differently, or there might be a budding patent war.

This slideshow accompanies our story Can the U.S. patent system be saved? Click through to that story for a discussion of the issues.

The crustless PB&J (1997)

Remove crusts, fill with peanut butter and jelly -- and wait for the patent award. The patent abstract reads in part: "The sandwich includes a lower bread portion, an upper bread portion, an upper filling and a lower filling between the lower and upper bread portions, a center filling sealed between the upper and lower fillings, and a crimped edge along an outer perimeter of the bread portions for sealing the fillings therebetween."

Turns out there is money to be made in the crustless, sealed sandwich business. Smuckers acquired the patent in 1998 and soon afterward began selling a line of products known as "Uncrustables," which it still sells today.

ENIAC (1964)

The patent on the ENIAC, generally recognized as the first true digital computer, was the very first computer patent in history. It took nearly 20 years for examiners to grant it in 1964, but it was voided just nine years later. A 1973 landmark federal court case -- Honeywell vs. Sperry Rand -- put the invention of the electronic digital computer in the public domain because the court recognized an earlier prototype (the little-known Atanasoff computer) and John Atanasoff, not John Mauchly, as the inventor of the first electronic computer.

Basmati rice (1997)

International outrage and calls of bio-piracy rang out when the USPTO granted a Texas company named RiceTec patent number 5,663,484 on "basmati rice lines and grains." A native of India and other eastern countries, basmati rice has been eaten for thousands of years. The issue nearly caused a diplomatic crisis when India threatened to take the issue of the patent to the World Trade Organization. The USPTO invalidated the patent.

Hyperlinks (1989)

U.S. patent number 4,873,662 was granted to an inventor who holds claim to the hyperlink, one of the dozen or so that the Electronic Frontier Foundation says should be voided.

Some of the patent's claim reads that it covers "a digital information storage, retrieval and display system comprising: a central computer means in which plural blocks of information are stored at respectively corresponding locations, each of which locations is designated by a predetermined address therein by means of which a block can be selected... and a second portion containing information not for display but including the complete address for each of plural other blocks of information..."

Of course, to infringe on the claim, you’d have to do everything it says.

Laser-tag with cats (1995)

If you have both a laser pointer and a playful house cat you probably have violated this patent multiple times. Luckily for you, the inventor didn’t pay maintenance fees and lost his rights so this patent is now inactive. Expired in 2007, patent 5,443,036 was granted 14 years after its original filing.

Eureka! Fluffy is exercising!

Video game (2004)

Nintendo has a patent that covers the software in video game systems, and is another one targeted by the EFF in its "patent-busting" project because it's overly broad, the group says.

Patent 6,672,963 covers, just in its first claim, "a computer system including: a microprocessor of a first type, a writable memory coupled to said first type microprocessor, at least one user input device coupled to said first type microprocessor, a sound generator coupled to said first type microprocessor display circuitry coupled to said first type microprocessor...  a method of adapting said computer system to play interactive games written for a handheld video game platform different from said computer system..."