The website Latepatents.net has collated a top 100 list of companies with a link to their individual expired US patents.  Said patents have expired due to failure to pay maintenance fees and not due to normal expiry. I checked a random sampling at the USPTO and found that indeed the patents were expired.

Readers will have to determine for themselves the value of these heaps of company treasure lying about the Public Domain landscape like so many abandoned Buicks, tanks still full of gas.

Given the quality of the companies that have the prematurely expired patents, and the resources they surely spend on IP management, I’ll hazard a guess that most of these patents were allowed to expire on purpose.

Patents are obtained for many reasons. One invention might lead to prompt and exclusive sales and profits for its owner. Another invention might lead to possible cash flow in the future if certain circumstances align properly. Some patents may be intended to be put up for lease or sale. Still other inventions serve to block competitors from facile entry into your line of business, so called “picket fence” patents.

It is not unusual for a given bit of intellectual property to become obsolete before the natural expiration of the patent. Technology can advance sufficiently such that a process or composition is no longer competitive. A company can move away from a technology package for business reasons having nothing to do with the suitability of the patented art.

Finally, I think that some patents are obtained simply because the company has a “policy” that requires the disclosure of inventions and subsequent mechanical submission to the attorneys. If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you’re running an intellectual property office, every disclosure looks like a patent. 

If too many “improvements” turn into applications, it may not be the fault of over-eager patent attorneys. More likely, it is the result of choices made by company management. I have witnessed a few circumstances where managers have been reluctant to exercise business judgement and have heaped the decision to patent solely upon the hapless attorney. What choice does the attorney have but to prosecute the patent?

It is my opinion that business people far too frequently allow their attorneys to make IP business decisions for them. The typical excuse is that it is a “legal matter”. The question for a business person is this- Can we make a choice that prevents the issue from becoming a legal matter?  Sometimes we use lawyers because we need a surrogate to do the dirty work for us.

The common default choice found in IP is that if it can be patented it should be patented. This is an expensive and weak-minded philosophy and I’ll wager that the patents in the aforementioned list are expired as a result of some second thoughts on the value of these inventions.

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