Like legal briefs, patents are a specialized, highly formal variety of written-language documents with very particular formatting requirements varying by the particular patent office involved (each country has a different one).
A patent describes an invention, and if approved by the patent office, grants a limited-time monopoly on that particular idea. In theory, patents promote dissemination of innovation by encouraging inventions to be documented publicly instead of being withheld as trade secrets, and once the patent expires the idea is in the public domain for all to use. However, patents tend to be written in a stilted style of language sometimes termed "patentese", difficult for anybody but a patent lawyer to understand; there are many quirks of wording, including a tendency to refer to "a plurality of..." whenever one wishes to say that there is more than one of something. When patents wind up in legal cases, it can be extremely expensive for both sides due to the need for specialized lawyers and elaborate presentations to attempt to explain a patent and its applicability to a particular case in terms a jury can understand.
Patents sometimes have an impact on file formats of all sorts, as something that was believed to be free and open turns out to have a patent protecting some aspect of it and causing users of the format to be subject to litigation. This happened, for instance, with the GIF graphic format, which incorporated the patented LZW compression technique (but this patent has subsequently expired).
There is a controversial tendency, in the time since the Internet became popular, for patents to be issued over all sorts of vaguely-defined concepts that sometimes seem to amount to "Do stuff that people have done for years, decades, or centuries... but do it with computers! on the Internet!". Sometimes these patents get issued, and even hold up in court, despite similar things having been done in the past even with networked computers, such as on the ARPAnet in the 1970s or CompuServe in the 1980s; the patent owner still claims that doing it on the web is Totally Different.
- USPTO patent section
- The 5 Most Ridiculous Things People Tried to Patent
- The evil engineer's guide to patents
- Ask Patents (tries to find prior art to invalidate bad patent applications)
- Victory Lap for Ask Patents
- Trolling Effects: searchable database of patent troll demand letters
- Obituary for software patents
- Slowing the Patent Trolls (NY Times op-ed)
- Tesla: All Our Patent Are Belong To You