A clever algorithm generating millions of random ideas is turning the tables on patent trolls

Patent wall.
Patent wall.
Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse
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Sometimes the only way to beat a troll is to troll even harder.

Artist and engineer Alexander Reben has written an algorithm that exploits the convoluted US patent system in order to mess with patent trolls—people and organizations who file for patents on trivial concepts without any intention of building a product, then extort money from those who actually make things.

His project, All Prior Art, posts ideas for “inventions” to prevent people from filing patents they’re not going to use. According to US patent law, if there’s “prior art“—in this case, a previously published version of the idea—no one can file a patent on it. He’s posted 4.2 million such ideas and counting.

Says Reben, “The real purpose of the patent system is to reward innovation and help protect people who put in a lot of time and money testing and doing R&D.” He hopes to address this with his fake ideas.

The algorithm pulls from the entirety of current US patents and mashes together random phrases and sentences, so the inventions are quite often meaningless. One reads:

According to one configuration, a user is able to activate an application on a mobile phone device without the user having to directly pressing an appropriate sequence of keys on the mobile phone device. The containment framework may support services which integrate with network-based services to deliver personalized content to small footprint device users. The switch is preferably stamped from a thin sheet of flexible metallic material having magnetic characteristics.

Others are ever so slightly sensical, as in the case of an ad display with many shelves and screens:

A merchandising display system having a molded shelf unit containing a plurality of shelves andor a pegboard for holding goods, and one or more graphic panels for displaying advertising or other information is disclosed. This outsole has fixing means, which are formed by upwardly projecting neps and which fix a shoe upper of the shoe …

There’s also the one-shoe shoe tree with fingerprint data collection and the pineapple lily plant that can track other people.

But because Reben produces tens of thousands of “ideas” per day, running off his own server at virtually no extra cost in time or money to himself, there’s really nothing to lose if even 99.99% of the ideas are useless. “Basically, it doesn’t matter how much garbage it generates,” he says.

The real goal of Reben’s site is not to try to publish all possible prior art—he doesn’t have the resources for that. But he hopes to demonstrate the flaws of the current patent system and to perhaps attract a bigger, more powerful player who might. If he could put out a billion ideas per day, he believes, it’s just a matter of probability running its course to put a stop to patent trolls.