The Best Patent Rejection You'll Ever See (Featuring Borat)

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It is not often that United States Patent and Trademark Office makes a funny. The understaffed and oft-maligned agency is tasked with helping inventors capture the value that they create while stopping copycats and other parasites from patenting things that already exist. They are not known for a sense of humor in pursuing this thankless, impossible assignment.

Which brings us to this patent application for a "scrotal support garment," first filed in February of 2008 by Donald Quinn of Bristol, TN. (And one of many such garments for which patents have been filed.)

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If you are a big fan of Sacha Baron Cohen, you may recognize the form of this suit from the 2006 movie, Borat, which featured Cohen cavorting in a similar outfit near the beginning of the movie. Well, according to Stewart Walsh at IPWatchdog, a patent examiner recognized the garment, too, and rejected Quinn's application on the basis that the garment already existed. The examiner even included an annotated still of Cohen wearing the swimsuit in the rejection letter.

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"Bifurcated junction" has never and will never be funnier than in this context.

Walsh used this example as a jumping off point to discuss how patent examiners could use evidence from outside the patent literature. "An invention cannot be patented if there has been a public disclosure of said invention prior to the date of filing," Walsh explains. "This application for a scrotal support garment serves as a great example of rejection through non-patent literature. When you apply for a patent, the examiner can use any information available to the public to reject your application - not just patents. In this case... a picture of Borat."

It's worth noting that this is not only coming up in silly patent cases. Part of Samsung's recent response to an Apple patent suit over the iPad was to argue that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey prefigured Apple's tablet.

"The moral of the story is this," Walsh concludes, "prior art comes from strange places sometimes." Strange places such as the bifurcated junction on Borat's swimsuit.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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