Decoding Patents – An Appropriate Context for Teaching About Technology?

A couple of nights ago, as I was having a rummage around the European patent office website, looking up patents by company to see what the likes of Amazon, Google, Yahoo and, err, Technorati have been posting recently, it struck me that IT and engineering courses might be able to use patents in the similar way to the way that Business Schools use Case Studies as a teaching tool (e.g. Harvard Business Online: Undergraduate Course Materials)?

This approach would seem to offer several interesting benefits:

  • the language used in patents is opaque – so patents can be used to develop reading skills;
  • the ideas expressed are likely to come from a commercial research context; with universities increasingly tasked with taking technology transfer more seriously, looking at patents situates theoretical understanding in an application area, as well as providing the added advantage of transferring knowledge in to the ivory tower, too, and maybe influencing curriculum development as educators try to keep up with industrial inventions;-)
  • many patents locate an invention within both a historical context and a systemic context;
  • scientific and mathematical principles can be used to model or explore ideas expressed in a patent in more detail, and in a the “situated” context of an expression or implementation of the ideas described within the patent.

As an example of how patents might be reviewed in an uncourse blog context, see one of my favourite blogs, SEO by the SEA, in which Bill Slawski regularly decodes patents in the web search area.

To see whether there may be any mileage in it, I’m going to keep an occasional eye on patents in the web area over the next month or two, and see what sort of response they provoke from me. To make life easier, I’ve set up a pipe to scrape the search results for patents issued by company, so I can now easily subscribe to a feed of new patents issued by Amazon, or Yahoo, for example.

You can find the pipe here: European Patent Office Search by company pipe.

I’ve also put several feeds into an OPML file on Grazr (Web2.0 new patents, and will maybe look again at the styling of my OPML dashboard so I can use that as a display surface (e.g. Web 2.0 patents dashboard).

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

5 thoughts on “Decoding Patents – An Appropriate Context for Teaching About Technology?”

  1. Cool idea – especially if you’re wanting to encourage students to get in to the whole IP management game. (Which not everyone would.)

    The big difference I can see between patents on one hand and case studies/journal articles on the other is the evaluation of whether an idea is of substantial practical use in the real world or not. A patent has to be implementable, but by definition it can’t be in widespread use yet, so you don’t know whether it’s turned out to be a good idea or not.

    I know I’m pretty rubbish at evaluating technologies before they’re actually deployed seriously: my favourite is that I was convinced that the world wide web was a load of rubbish and would never catch on. (In my defence I did revise my opinion by 1994.)

  2. “The big difference I can see between patents on one hand and case studies/journal articles on the other is the evaluation of whether an idea is of substantial practical use in the real world or not.”

    Firstly, just because something is published in an academic journal, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for anything;-)
    And secondly, you’d pick and choose the patents you referred students to?

    PS re t’internet – we probably shouldn’t rely on it, particularly for course delivery, because it might disappear tomorrow…

  3. Would you be implicitly supporting software patents by doing this?

    I have to confess that I’ve never read a patent in my life (despite working on a project in the private sector which patented lots of things) – maybe I should!

  4. The advice usually given to software engineers in companies is to not to look at patents, because in the US – and such cases are largely prosecuted in the US, regardless of where the parties are – there is an automatic triple damage clause for *wilfully* (ie, knowingly) violating a patent. In the words of Gandalf they Grey, “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy”.
    In any case, most patents are rather boring. I’ve written a few. Well, written the description that the lawyers then turn into legalese.

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