This patent arm wrestling doesn’t just provide low-hanging fruit to reporters. It also affects business dealings. Let’s say you have two companies that want to make some kind of business deal, Charles Duan, a patent expert at the R Street Institute, says. One of their key negotiation points might be patents. If two giant companies want to cut a deal that involves their patent portfolios, nobody is going to go through and analyze every one of those patents to make sure they’re actually useful or original, Duan says, since analyzing a single patent thoroughly can cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. So instead of actually figuring out who has the more valuable patents, “the [company] with more patents ends up getting more. I’m not sure there’s honestly much more to it.”
It’s a good example for why there is still real value in reading the patents that companies apply for—not because doing so will necessarily tell you what they’re actually going to make, but because they tell you what problems the company is trying to solve. “They’re indicative of what’s on the engineer’s mind,” says Duan. “They’re not going to make the cage, but it does tell you that they’re worried about worker safety.” Spotify probably won’t make its automatic parking finder, so you don’t have to pause your music in a parking garage while you hunt for a spot. But it does want to figure out how to reduce interruptions in your music consumption. So go forth and read patents. Just remember that they’re often equal parts real invention and sci-fi.