Alex Reben came up with 2.5 million ideas in just three days. Nearly all of them are terrible – but he doesn’t mind. He thinks he has found a way to thwart patent trolls by putting their speculative ideas in the public domain before they can make a claim.
In his project, called All Prior Art, Reben, an artist and engineer, uses software to rummage through the US patent database, which is freely available online. The software extracts sentences from patent documents and splices them into phrases that describe new inventions.
The result is a bizarre array of contraptions that don’t quite make sense. A robotic phone book. A nasal plug adorned with magnetic jewellery. 3D-printed soap that kills pests on strawberry plants. And one of Reben’s favourites – a temperature-regulating adult nappy with a built-in hood.
All Prior Art is Reben’s small strike against patent trolls – people who speculatively buy up patents and then accuse others of infringing them, making money from settlements or court-imposed fines. But – in Europe and the US, at least – an idea can be patented only if it is not already in the public domain – being prior art.
Software is already used to generate novel and practical ideas – sometimes by analysing patent databases. But Reben is going for an exhaustive approach. By cranking out as many patentable concepts as possible and posting them online, he wants to make it harder for people to copyright ideas that are trivial or uninventive.
Since the system simply splices together existing ideas, Reben doesn’t expect it to come up with anything truly novel. But that is the point. The aim is to clear the ground of relatively trivial incremental advances that can be produced by automation, he says. “Now that it’s in my system, it can be considered prior art.”
To be useful, the system doesn’t always need to come up with things that make sense, says Reben. The aim is to cover as many variations as possible. Getting a computer to spit out ideas for free also forces us to address the question of what should be patented, he says. He thinks the patent system should refocus on its original purpose – rewarding people for innovation.