So, while I have a month off, I thought I would help everybody pass the time until the next commenting tournament by rambling about patents. My apologies in advance for the lazy ways I dealt with formatting issues.

As background, on a very, very basic level, a patent is a right in an invention granted by the government, to a patentee, which lets the patentee exclude others from practicing or manufacturing that invention. A patent is not a right to practice the invention. You can patent products and devices, obviously, but you can also patent methods of doing things. This can include ways to play sports.

As a general policy matter, at least for professional sports leagues, it's bad for techniques used during competition to be protected by a patent. If one competitor has a patent on an advantageous technique, and can exclude others from using it (or if the competitor gets an exclusive license, or a non-exclusive license that other competitors can't afford), that creates a big competitive imbalance without a basis in anything happening on the field. For example, imagine that the first person to start using the jump shot in basketball obtained a patent on it. At the time, patents lasted for 17 years from the date of issue; this person could have gone through his whole career with an enormous advantage over his competitors, who could have been sued for daring to leave the ground during a shot attempt.

As a more recent example, suppose Pat Riley filed for and somehow obtained a patent for "Rileyball," the methodical uglying-up of basketball by the mid-90's New York Knicks (history's greatest team, but you knew that), producing low scoring games. Nobody else would have been able to use this technique, leaving the NBA stuck in the mire of the high-scoring, exciting basketball of the 1980's, and- on second thought, this probably would have been a good thing. Nevermind.

The Patent Office has also been reluctant to grant patents for "recreational" activities. One of the requirements for a patent is that the invention must be "useful" in some way, and the Patent Office's official position is that a specific technique involved in playing a game is not "useful" in the sense they're looking for. However, this seems to be more of a guideline than a hard-and-fast rule, and might depend on which Examiner is assigned to a given patent application. Looking at the USPTO database, I found a variety of patented golf putting techniques. Here's one of them, along with a Patent Examiner Smackdown of another "inventor's" attempt to patent a short-putting method.

As full disclosure, I am not a golfer nor do I watch much golf, so for all I know, this first one is actually an excellent idea and has revolutionized the sport. I'd wager against it, though.

Putting method and putter - US 7121954 B2

Back to the "useful" requirement for inventions: You must explain in your patent application why your invention is, in fact, useful. This often involves a discussion of the currently-existing analogous invention and the problems surrounding it. What, you might ask, is wrong with the traditional golf putt?

The traditional way for golfers to putt is to stand facing the ball on the ground at a right angle to the target line. In this position the golfer's head is also at about a right angle to the target line. He holds the grip of the putter with both hands in front of his body with the putter face aimed down the target line. Herein this traditional way is called a “traditional two-handed technique”, “traditional two-handed method” or a “traditional two-handed putt”. He looks down at the ball and putter face with the eyes in a frontal, level viewing position. Before putting, golfers usually look over the line of the putt over which the ball will roll in order to determine the contour of the surface. However, after addressing the ball with his body and eyes at right angles to the target line, the golfer rotates his head to the left and looks out of the sides of his eyes to observe the distance, the direction of the hole and the contours of the surface of the green. From this side angle viewing position, the golfer attempts to judge the distance from the ball to the hole, the direction the ball needs to be hit, and the amount of force required to ‘sink’ the ball into the hole. The golfer then returns his visual focus to the ball and putter face in an attempt to correctly aim the putter face, judge the distance to the hole and estimate the amount of force needed to hit the ball to the hole as he remembers from previous observations. He does this with his body, head and eyes at right angles to the target line.

Traditional two-handed putting, as described above, is complicated and difficult. It limits and restricts successful putting results even for those golfers with exceptional talent, gifted coordination and those who diligently practice.

Christ, that sounds complicated, and terrible. What makes this all so difficult?

It is obvious that a golfer must use his human body in the form it exists to hit a full shot or a putt.

Yes, yes. It's obvious. Of course. [cancels upcoming surgery to replace puny, inferior human arms with metallic, laser-guided putting GolfArms™]

The human body is made for survival and living on earth. It was not made specifically to play golf, whether to execute a full shot or a putt.

A bold statement, that the human body was not intelligently designed by some omnipotent being in order to dick around on a golf course for several hours on a Saturday. Go on.

In fact, the human body is not well formed for the efficient and excellent execution of either golf method. Some of the sources of the human body's limitations and restrictions to the performance of golf are: its many bones,

Ah, there's the problem. We have too. many. bones. That GolfArms™ surgery you just tricked me into canceling would have solved this problem, too, for the record.

their shapes and their relative location of one to another; its many major and minor joints and their relative location of one to another, as well as their various capacities and limitations; its many muscles and their capacities, limitations and relative locations; its lack of capacity to execute the precise timing and coordination required by golf methods; the body's limitations for power and precise control over the golf club; and the body's limited ability to accurately sense the existence of the external environment and the influence that those external conditions will have on the body's ability to execute a golf swing and the movement of the ball after it is struck.

OK, fine, fine. Our stupid bodies are awful. How do we solve this problem?

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There it is. There's the future of golf. Actually, this patent includes several forms, but the inventor chose this to be the representative figure. Also, keep in mind that this patent is still in effect, so be sure to brush up on all of the forms, or you'll accidentally use one of these, and you'll be thrown in jail. (Or be sued for non-existent damages/an injunction, more likely. Or, in reality, not sued, because nobody is watching you play golf, you hack.) The patent only protects what is in the claims, however, not what's in the pictures, so let's see exactly what you can't do on a golf course in the United States (I don't know if they have corresponding patents in foreign countries):

1. A method of putting a golf ball over the surface of a green using a putter having a putter head with a putter face, said putter head being attached to a distal end of a shaft having a grip along a proximal end of the shaft,

said method comprises a golfer

(a) grasping a portion of the grip with the right hand at a location along the grip so that the proximal end of the shaft is at or past the right elbow and bears against the underside of the right arm,

(b) crooking the right elbow to configure said right arm and putter in a predetermined positional relationship, and placing the left hand on the putter nearby the right hand to move with said right hand,

(c) addressing the ball by

standing upright to one side of a target line along the golfer's left side and with the golfer's body facing in the same general direction as the target line and both the golfer's feet on the right side of the target line and positioned nearby the ball so that essentially most of the golfer's body is on the right side of the target line,

bringing said right arm across the front of the golfer's body and positioning the putter head adjacent to the ball and the putter face behind and facing the ball, and

(d) striking the ball by swinging the putter through a backstroke, forward stroke, and follow-through stroke while substantially maintaining said right arm and putter in said predetermined positional relationship.

Sports!

Still not convinced? Does this putt use too many of your bones and/or senses? Here you go:

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"That's all well and good," you say, "but how did they get a patent on this? Isn't this a 'recreational' activity?"


Absolutely not. Look at this figure, from yet another form of the putt:


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"That's recreational!" you are undoubtedly yelling at your computer right now.

"He's smiling, his eyebrows are arched in a matter indicating joy and/or the wearing of clown makeup, he's got his lucky sleeveless t-shirt on. This is a recreational activity!"

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Well, that's just on the backswing of the putt. Here's what happens mere milliseconds later:

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Look at that face. Deadly. Serious. This doesn't look recreational at all. This putt most certainly has a use, Mr. Patent Examiner: guaranteeing Sleeveless Johnny third place at the Greater Omaha Miniature Golf Championship, so that his kids will finally respect him.

Here's this patent on Google Patents if you're so inclined.


Like I said, not everybody is lucky enough to be able to patent their putting method:

U.S. Patent Application No. 10/832,351 (abandoned)


So, what problem were we trying to solve here?

Many a golf tournaments are won and lost by the players ability to make short and what may appear to be relatively simple putts. However, as one of the most recent major golf tournaments will attest, making putts of this distance is not a guarantee.

Quick note: this application was filed in 2004, but derived from an application that was filed in February 2002. I couldn't find video, but I assume this is referring to Stewart Cink missing an 18-incher at the 2001 U.S. Open. Many a golf tournaments, indeed. What's the issue, exactly?

A noted contemporary instructor on putting, Dave Pells, has studied the effects of misalignment relative to a target line due to the putters swing path, the putter face and the optimum hitting location on the putter surface each of which effect the ultimate putting success...In order to reduce the possibility of misalignment of the putter face, path and hitting location, Mr. Pells' recommends that the players' putting stroke start with the optimum hitting location on the putting face immediately adjacent the ball and that the stroke travel along a path aligned with the target line with the face remaining perpendicular to the target line for the entire stroke. However, when a player swings the putter around the spine only, such a stroke often times does not result.

The damn spine! One day, a man will be granted a patent entitled "Improved Golfing Method Via Removal Of Every Bone In The Body" and he will win 40 majors. Until that day, though, what can we do?

As will become clear from the following detailed description, the present invention is directed to a putter and a method of putting very short putts, i.e., within one to two feet of the hole.

Here's the putter:

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This inventor did, in fact, get a patent for this putter (but not the method of using it) from the earlier application. Here's the diagram of how it's used (there's no Sleeveless Johnny to demonstrate this one, sadly):

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So, essentially, you stand on the opposite side of the hole from the ball, then place your weird, patented putter on the far side of the ball, with the putter handle over the hole, and drag it toward you. A reasonable solution to the problem, even if it could be accomplished with much less work and expense by "focusing for five seconds before taking the 18-inch putt, Stewart," but, alright.

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Or, not alright, if you're the Examiner. I mentioned earlier that an invention must be useful in order to be patented. Another requirement is that it must be novel. To get evidence that this method of putting wasn't novel, the Examiner spared no expense or effort, tirelessly researching the-

No, not really. He actually, apparently, stood up in his office, and said "Hey, is anybody here bad at golf? I need you to sign something." He filed three affidavits from other Examiners stating that they had tried this method of putting as early as the 1960's. Take this, inventor guy!

The first two signers admitted to doing this on mini-golf courses, and the third is lying to himself, and more importantly for legal purposes, the Patent Office. In any case, this was enough to eliminate novelty for the claimed method, and the inventor was forced to abandon this application, with only his weird putter patent to console him.

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I hope this was informative or entertaining, and I'll do this again if I can find more interesting patents/applications to explain/mock.

Bring Back Anthony Mason, when not writing about patents for Sidespin, can be found starring in such television shows as Mad Men.