Isn’t every human being both a scientist and an artist; and in writing of human experience, isn’t there a good deal to be said for recognizing that fact and for using both methods?

― James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

As you may have heard, the United States Patent and Trademark Office just issued U.S. 9,000,000, assigned to WiperFill Holdings, for a “windshield washer conditioner” that collects and conditions rainwater or dew from a windshield for use as washer fluid. What you may not realize is that the Patent Office hand-selects certain patents to be recognized as a “milestone millionth.” In 2011, Second Sight Medical Products received U.S. 8,000,000 for a visual prosthesis that enhances visual perception for people who have gone blind due to outer retinal degeneration. And in 2006, U.S. 7,000,000 was awarded to a DuPont inventor for biodegradable polysaccharide fibers useful for textiles. For the complete “set,” browse to: http://www.uspto.gov/learning-and-resources/ip-motion/millions-patents

So what’s amiss here? Read on . . . .

Patents issue every Tuesday. And with the kinds of numbers we’re talking about, a system is needed. On any given Tuesday, the USPTO’s system works like this (for utility patents): mechanical patents go first, then chemical, then electrical. For each of these, the sequence follows the main U.S. classification. Patents are numbered starting with those having the lowest class/subclass combination. Thus, a mechanical patent in class 15, subclass 250 (“15/250”) would issue with a lower number than one in 81/128, which gets a lower number than one in 99/287, and so on. And all of these would precede the chemical and electrical patents regardless of how the latter were classified. Unless, of course, it’s a “milestone millionth” patent. (After all, the PTO has infrequent opportunities to toot its own horn, and this one commands major mojo.)

If certain strings weren’t “pulled and persuaded,” we might expect to see more “ordinary” inventions awarded those special milestone numbers. So what if the USPTO hadn’t singled out the University of Florida’s ethanol production by E. coli strains (435/161) as U.S. 5,000,000? Who was deprived of a “milestone millionth” patent? It’s high time we praised less-famous men and women.

U.S. Pat. No. 5,000,001

Based on pecking order alone, U.S. 5,000,000, should have gone to a group of Danish employees of Danfoss A/S for its “Dual Load-Sensing Passage Adjustable Relief Valves for Hydraulic Motor Control.” This follows because their mechanical patent, classified 60/450, should follow U.S. 4,999,999, another mechanical case classified 60/313. Instead, they were awarded U.S. 5,000,001 to make room for E. coli-based ethanol, a chemical case that should have come later. According to the patent, the invention “is based on the problem of providing a control apparatus . . . in which the permissible pressure in the motor conduits can have different values depending on the actuating direction.” Admittedly, this one has less sex appeal than ethanol from E. coli, but we salute the Danes for their “almost-millionth” effort. (I’m reminded somehow of the “Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award” from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.)

U.S. Pat. No. 5,999,999

An almost-famous octet of Japanese inventors from Hitachi conceived of a “Communication Control Device and a Communication System Using the Same.” The device “allows a plurality of data items to be transferred to and from external devices, such as a CPU and a memory, via an external bus having a different data bus width in DMA (direct memory access) transfer mode.” Because the “DMA controller provided within the communication control unit enables control of data sequencing, a high speed data transfer can be attained.” I’m a chemist, so the best response I can come up with is: “I’ll take your word for it, guys–kudos!”

U.S. Pat. No. 6,999,999

“System and Method for Securing Fiber Channel Drive Access in a Partitioned Data Library” is the brainchild of three Bristol, GB inventors from Hewlett-Packard. I must admit, the acronyms in this one are a bit mesmerizing. Among others, we have SAN (storage area networks), SSP (storage service providers), FC (fibre channel), RAID (redundant array of independent disks), LUN (logic unit number), WWN (world-wide name), RMC (remote management card), and I2C (inter-integrated circuit bus). I could go on, but you get the idea. Maybe the PTO had the right idea to opt for strong, natural fibers that we can twirl into textiles? Anyway, hat’s off to our friends at H-P!

U.S. Pat. No. 7,999,999

The “almost” eight-millionth patent belongs to Unopsys, a Flemington, NJ company for “Article Comprising a Multichannel Optical Amplified Transmission System with Functional Upgrade Capabilities and Universal Modules” According to the abstract, a “universal inline functional module for operation with non-zero average gain G ≠ 0dB over a bandwidth is provided. The module includes at least one optical functional element producing loss over the bandwidth and at least one rare-earth doped fiber segment. The module produces a flat gain spectrum to within a specified tolerance when made to operate at an average gain of 0 dB over the bandwidth.” Okay, I’ll give a slight marketability edge to the visual prosthesis idea. Well done, Unopsys!

U.S. Pat. No. 8,999,999

Our most recently jilted “almost millionth” contestants are the men and women of Pharmacyclics, Inc., Sunnyvale, CA, for their “Use of Inhibitors of Bruton’s Tyrosine Kinase (BTK),” issued April 8, 2015. All things being equal, this 148-column disclosure with 39 drawing sheets and hundreds of cited references would have won the coveted 9,000,000 prize. The patent describes “methods for treating a cancer comprising: a. administering a Btk inhibitor to a subject sufficient to result in an increase or appearance in the blood of a subpopulation of lymphocytes defined by immunephenotyping; b. determining the expression profile of one or more biomarkers from one or more subpopulation of lymphocytes; and c. administering a second agent based on the determined expression profile.” This one wins a Jonny for “Best Figure” for its Fig. 1 (see attached). Although I like the windshield washer system, the weight of the evidence clearly favors of Pharmacyclics!

Click here to view figure.

Perhaps you wonder why the last four “almost millionth” patents end in ‘999 instead of ‘001? In each of these cases (based on classification and whether the patent is mechanical, chemical, or electrical), the milestone patent would normally have appeared earlier, thereby bumping the respective ‘999 patent into relative stardom. For example, U.S. 8,000,000 was a mechanical case. Absent its selection by the PTO, this patent would have appeared well before any of the electrical cases, and U.S. 7,999,999 would have been the milestone winner. In contrast, for U.S. 5,000,001, the milestone patent was a chemical case that would normally follow any mechanical case.

Well, we’ve at last paid tribute to five “almost millionth” milestone patentees. If the ladder of law indeed had “no top and no bottom,” most of these patentees would have had their just deserts long ago. And although the process of reviewing these may help us appreciate the merits of the PTO’s approach, let’s not forget—at least every nine million or so patents—to praise unfamous men and women.