A patent on nagging

If you’re an intellectual property lawyer, the most exciting case of the year will be heard by the Supreme Court this spring.

If you’re a driver, the case is partly about how cars can nag you about speeding.

Last year I test drove a new car for the first time in over a decade. I saw a speed limit sign floating above the dashboard. How annoying, and not just because it picked up one of Canton’s illegal speed limit signs.

If not for patent 6,778,074 my speedometer might have turned red too. A company patented the idea of telling drivers if they were speeding, including by making numbers turn red.

The folding airplane wing, the bra, the computer mouse, the aerosol can… all of these were patents on useful, innovative things.

But comparing speed to speed limit? I have an ancient radar gun that sounds an alarm when the speed limit is exceeded. Displaying colored numbers is an even older idea, and the methods they “invented” to make numbers turn red are tried and true.

Patents these days protect abstract ideas, plus dozens of blindingly obvious ways to put them into practice.

Thankfully (if you work in technology) the patent office said most of that was obvious. The red numbers part of the patent is invalid.

Unfortunately (if you drive) unless the Supreme Court rescues the patent everybody’s speedometer might start blinking red for no good reason.

If I wanted a speed alarm I’d set it at the real speed limit, not the meaningless number on the sign. I used to ask my car to warn me if I hit 85 mph in Connecticut, the speed at which a speeding ticket turns into “reckless driving.” Nobody, police included, cared that the signs said 55 or 65.

If you follow automotive news you probably heard about cars starting to enforce speed limits. Anybody feel like patenting that idea and charging a billion dollars to license the invention?

Competing interests disclosure: I was awarded half a patent for something that never should have been patented, a design of a networked computer system. I get no royalties. I deserve none.

The opinions expressed in belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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