Toyota will give away thousands of patents for its hydrogen fuel-cell cars to encourage other automakers into the new industry.Thinkstock

Patents in general are usually pretty boring. But recently, they've been anything but dull.

On Jan. 6, Toyota announced that it would give away thousands of patents for its fuel-cell cars in an effort to encourage other automakers to join in building the new industry. And in the past few years, President Barack Obama has issued rules to discourage patent "trolls," companies that acquire patents and then sue others for supposedly violating them.

A patent is an invention, process, device or method that is deemed useful and new. The patent protection stops others from copying the products in the United States. A copyright is an original expression, idea, book, film, photo or other work. Slogans, phrases and trade names are protected by trademarks. Now that we know the ground rules, here are 10 things you probably didn't know about patents.


The ancient Greeks in 500 B.C. granted protection to inventors, while the first patent law was enacted by the Venetian Republic in 1474. Massachusetts gave Joseph Winslow a patent to make salt in 1633, the first in North America, while patents are mentioned in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution: “The Congress shall have power ... To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."


History has also been filled with silly patents, (apparently not a disqualification): a method for swinging on a swing (duh!), a face-mask to prevent eating, an anti-thumb-sucking device, a gerbil shirt (don’t ask), a banana case, animal ear protectors for doggies, a bike with a sail and, of course, an interactive life-size bowl of soup.


The United States is in the middle of patent boom right now, but the real golden age was the industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1916 and 1915, the U.S. Patent Office granted more than 400 patents per person in the United States -- while 2010 and 2011 topped 120,000 grants each year. Still, the United States ranks just ninth in patents per capita as global competition has increased.


Patent trolls are costing U.S. businesses $29 billion a year, according to a Boston University study, up from $7 billion in 2005. Turns out that small- and medium- size companies are particularly hit hard by these suits. "Parties that are supposed to benefit from the patent system actually suffer because it creates a headache for them," said study co-author Michael Meurer of the BU School of Law. "In many cases, it turned into a system that imposes a tax on innovators instead of stimulating innovation."

Former farm fields are replaced by high tech industry growth in the San Jose area in California.Charles O'Rear/Corbis

Almost 2/3 of U.S. patents are developed by people living in just 20 metro areas, which are home to 1 in 3 Americans. From 2007 to 2011, the places with the highest number of patents per capita are: San Jose (computer hardware and peripherals), Burlington, Vt. (semiconductor devices), Rochester, Minn. (computer hardware), Corvallis, Ore. (semiconductors), Boulder, Colo. (communications), Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (semiconductors), Ann Arbor, Mich. (motors, engines and parts), San Francisco and Oakland (biotechnology), Austin, Texas (computer hardware) and Santa Cruz, Calif. (computer hardware).


When former University of Massachusetts basketball coach John Calipari (above) was leading his team to an NCAA appearance in 1996, he trademarked the phrase “Refuse to Lose" for use on t-shirts, sweatshirts and other uses. The motto had been in use by the entire UMass athletic program, but he got their first. Calipari took the phrase, and its royalties, when he left to coach for several pro teams before taking over at the University of Kentucky. The trademark was renewed in 2007, and he continues to use it to sell self-help videos and books. Former Lakers coach Pat Riley trademarked the phrase “Three-Peat." And Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is in a battle with a company that makes motorcycle suspensions over the initials “RG3."


An Australian gym owner lost a bid to trademark his “Superman workout," despite claiming the origin of his phrase was Nietzsche instead of DC Comics. 
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled against a Vermont farmer who said he trademarked the phrase “Eat More Kale," because it is too similar to the phrase “Eat More Chickin’" which is already owned by fast-food chicken chain Chick-Fil-A.

Wikimedia Commons

Just as Internet activists such as Wikileaks don’t believe in secret documents, the Swedish group Piratbyran (the Pirate Bureau) doesn't favor copyright protection. The group established themselves in the early 2000s to freely share information, culture and intellectual property. Some members then formed Pirate Bay in 2003, a file-sharing site where users can exchange movies and other big digital files, although it's faced legal troubles in recent weeks as an Irish court agreed to shut it down for citizens there.


The average patent is worth over $500,000, according to the Brookings study with recent patent sales from Eastman Kodak, Motorola, Nortel and Nokia, ranging from $477,000 to $760,000 per patent, and even single patents from relatively unknown companies selling online for $1 million. Still, some are sold for much less or become obsolete after a few years. Despite the large legal costs of obtaining a patent, 16 percent of patents are allowed to expire after just four years because the owners refuse to pay a $900 maintenance fee.