I came across a video on YouTube by a user named Yvon Martel, demonstrating a track machine he has invented (couldn't confirm whether he made it or had it constructed by someone else). Now this thing looks really useful in snowy or possibly muddy conditions, if you haven't seen the video already I'd check it out.
The applications for this machine are quite impressive, with different attachments for the vehicle giving it different capabilities, like being able to plough snow covered areas, push a stuck car or even provide electrical power from the machine itself.
While watching through the video you can see he's looking for manufacturers and distributors, but then near the end he displays some patent numbers he owns. Now this is what confused me, as I always thought patents where reserved for brand-spanking-new ideas, not just new uses for existing materials? But it seems I'm very wrong.
So I looked over Yvon's patents to see if he has invented anything new within the machine (you can check one of the patent numbers here to see if I missed something - oh yeah Google is into EVERYTHING) and the answer seems to be - no. He has not invented a new component, but by arranging them in the way he has he's been granted the patent.
I then looked at the official guidelines for patents in my country and they state the invention must be new and not an adaptation or combination of existing products. So in my mind a patent shouldn't be granted, he hasn't invented tracks or electrical generators. Patents are to be reserved for new ideas to help foster innovation, not stifle creativity with existing products (you may have a different view point, if so tell me in the comments).
But here is where the waters get a bit muddy. We are no longer isolated countries, instead we are international trading partners - but each country still set it's own rules. So while one country may be very strict when handing out legal protection of something, another may not. This leads to people seeking out countries where they can easily obtain patents that will then be honoured internationally.
A similar situation arouse around the "Keep calm and carry on" trademark. If you are unaware of the story the phrase "Keep calm and carry on" is from a British government propaganda poster which was designed in 1939, the message translated from propaganda is "Shut your mouth and carry on working". But this government produced design (which really exists in the public domain) was re-discovered by the owner of a book store in 2001 who started to get the design noticed. Fast-forward to 2011, where a greedy little man (not the book store owner who found it) got his grubby little hands on the slogan by registering it in the EU, having been quite rightly refused such a ludicrous claim in the UK. He now has sole rights over this slogan that he did not design or even be first to discover.
While patents and trademarks are different, I hope you understand the example I was trying to make. This is why governments should be very careful when handing out legal protection, as it can be easily abused by unscrupulous people to screw the rest of us.
However I see his invention as being useful and wish him good luck with it, I now know a little more about patents as a result.
Let me know what you think in the comments.