When you have a great idea, a patent can help you preserve and secure it so that the world knows it’s yours. Of course, not everyone wants a patent on something they created. For instance, Coca-Cola never patented their original formula because they were afraid someone could check out the patent and reverse engineer their own Coke after the patent ran out in 20 years. Instead, they kept it as a trade secret so no one would ever know it.
There are less selfish reasons to forgo a patent, as well. Sometimes a person or company finds value in releasing the patent so anyone in the world can use it for free? Why would anyone do that? Because, rare though it may be, altruism is an actual thing.
10. Volvo Gave Away the Patent for the 3-Point Safety Belt
In the modern world, it’s hard to imagine a car without seatbelts. But they weren’t always in cars and even after being introduced they weren’t mandatory to use. In fact, laws making seat belt use mandatory in the 1980s were met by angry protests from people who hated the idea.
Remarkably, seat belts had been around for decades prior to laws making them a requirement and Volvo patented the three-point safety belt, the one most of us are familiar with that goes over the shoulder and clips into place at your side, in 1959.
Engineer Nils Bohlin was the man who was behind the belt and the patent. His invention is in every single modern car in the world, so you can imagine what it might have been worth since 1959 to hold that patent. Over 92 million cars are made every year.
Bohlin was not a man who wanted to exploit a life-saving invention, however. In 1959, only Volva had this technology. Bohlin and Volvo gave the technology freely to the industry and anyone who wanted to make use of it and other car companies took full advantage. This life saving technology has literally saved millions of people as a result. .
9. Toyota Released 24,000 Royalty-Free Patents for Electric Car-Related Tech
As much as we think of automakers as some of the biggest companies in the world that rake in billions, and they are, they do have random moments of goodness like with the Volvo story above. But they are not the only ones.
There’s a modern push to keep looking towards electric vehicles and alternative energy transportation. Not only does gasoline pollute, it’s simply not an infinite resource so one day we will have to do without it whether or not we like it.
Towards the goal of creating better electric cars and related technology, Toyota released a stunning 24,000 royalty-free patents related to electric car technology for anyone to use. This happened in 2019, but five years earlier Elon Musk and Tesla did the same thing, sharing their patents with the world to keep the electric car push going.
Of course, things are not as full of sunshine as they seem in this situation as part of the Tesla pledge means that if another company uses Tesla’s patents, Tesla is free to use that other company’s patents as well. But on the surface it still sounds mostly altruistic, don’t you think?
8. The Diamond Match Company Released the Patent for Non-toxic Matches
Once upon a time a match was a remarkable piece of technology. It was fire you could form in seconds just with a quick moment of friction. No flint needed, nothing fancy at all. It wasn’t the smoothest road ever traveled, however. Early matches in the 19th century were made from white phosphorus and the horrible tales of how the chemical killed or mutilated people who worked with it are not for the squeamish.
In 1910, the Diamond Match Company patented a brand new kind of match. How was it innovative? Well, it wasn’t poisonous. Not for nothing, but if you can make a product that people like that isn’t poisonous when all other versions are poisonous, you just made a winning product.
These new matches were considered so important that William Howard Taft, the President of the United States, personally asked the Diamond Match Company to give up the patent. They did so for “humanity’s sake.” The result was the widespread manufacture and use of matches that finally didn’t have to mutilate people.
7. Jonas Salk Refused to Patent the Polio Vaccine
Hopefully, most people still know the name of Jonas Salk. Born in 1914, he became a doctor in New York and studied viruses like the flu. He began working on a vaccine throughout the Second World War. When he eventually switched gears to polio, he had some success and in 1955 he had perfected a vaccine that proved effective in preventing polio.
Before Salk, about 16,000 people per year contracted polio, many of them suffering extreme paralysis and more. Today people simply don’t get the disease and it has been effectively eradicated because of Salk’s vaccine.
While people called Salk a miracle worker for what he’d done, he refused to patent the vaccine. He was not interested in profit, what he was interested in was making sure everyone got vaccinated and no one got polio again.
6. Joseph Roentgen Wouldn’t Patent X-Rays
In physics, a roentgen is a unit of measure applied to X-rays and gamma rays. Exposure at a level of 400 roentgen is potentially lethal. The name comes to us from Joseph Roentgen, the man who discovered X-rays back in 1895. Imagine, in a world where this technology had never been seen or even thought of, how he felt when he put his hand in the tube contraption he had made, blasted it with the invisible energy he had discovered, and got an x-ray image of the bones in his hand for the first time. The image became an international sensation.
A man of science, Roentgen understood the potential benefits to what he had discovered. As such, he refused to take out a patent on x-ray generating technology. He wanted it to be free to use around the world for the benefit of all humankind. Though he won the first ever Nobel Prize in physics in 1901, he gave the money to his university and took no honors or awards for what he did.
5. The Inventors of Insulin Gave Their Patent Away for $1
One of Canada’s most famous citizens, Frederick Banting was the man who discovered insulin and saved countless lives. Working in London, Ontario in 1923, when he finally made his discovery he wanted no part in profiting from it or achieving any kind of fame. He refused to put his name on a patent at all.
Banting was not alone, of course. He had colleagues who helped develop insulin and the two other men – James Collip and Charles Best – put their names on the patent. Sounds like a case of stabbing your partner in the back, right? Well, they sold the patent to the University of Toronto for $1. The consensus was that it was unethical for a doctor to profit off of a discovery meant to save lives.
Fast forward to 2021 and a vial of insulin that cost $12 in Canada was almost $100 in the US so Banting’s dream of insulin being free to everyone didn’t fully work out, but the formulations have improved and diabetics have a much better quality of life so at least that’s something.
4. Ben Franklin Refused to Patent Anything
When we talk about famous inventors from history, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla often top the lists, but Ben Franklin is usually mentioned, too. He invented things like bifocals, catheters and swim fins, basically everything you need for a really weird party.
Franklin patented none of his inventions even when they were offered to him. Some of his inventions, like the Franklin Stove and bifocals definitely could have made him money, but that was not why he invented things.
He once said “that as we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.” Or, in other words, everyone benefits when we all share.
3. The Inventor of Chicken Nuggets Gave the Recipe Away
Ahh, the humble chicken nugget. We eat around 2.3 billion chicken nuggets per year so it’s safe to say these golden bites are well-liked. Just imagine what the patent on nugget technology would be worth had anyone wanted to take one out.
Some people wrongly assume chicken nuggets were gifted to the world by McDonalds, but they were not. A scientist named Robert Baker is the nugget genius behind it all who created the technology to make them in the 1960s. But why?
Chicken demand grew during WWII when other meat was scarce, so poultry production went up. Post war, meat wasn’t being rationed, people could get pork and beef again and chicken demand tanked. Chickens became impractical because roasting a whole one took time and you either needed a few to feed a family or you had too much to feed an individual.
Baker’s job was to find new ways to eat chicken. He came up with chicken wieners and other ideas but the molded, breaded ground white chicken idea was his true hit, just not right away. It wasn’t until the 70s when people started turning their back on red meat because it was considered unhealthy that new ways to eat chicken grew in demand. The nugget finally had its moment. It was thought to be less fatty, better for your heart, and all that jazz.
Of course, a chicken nugget isn’t healthy, but people focused more on the chicken and less on the nugget and the rest is history. Baker, for his part, did the opposite of patenting his method of making nuggets. He mailed the recipe to hundreds of food production companies.
2. Semyon Korsakov Developed Machine System for Information Storage
The timeline of computers is long and, often, kind of dull. Early machines that used punch card systems for data storage are not nearly as exciting as a modern gaming computer by any means, but they were a step on the path to what we have today.
Semyon Korsakov was a Russian statistician in 1817. He became interested in the idea of “machines for the comparison of ideas.” This took the form of a punch card system which helped search for information. In very, very rudimentary terms he was setting the stage for modern artificial intelligence. His invention was announced in 1832 as a machine for comparing ideas.
Korsakov thought the idea would be helpful to people, so he didn’t bother seeking a patent, instead making it freely available for any who wanted it. Sadly, the idea was mostly rejected at the time since no one could see the benefit in using a machine to access large amounts of information.
1. Daguerreotype Technology was Given Free to the World Except England
Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre was the inventor of one of the earliest kinds of photographs, the daguerreotype. They were images on silvered copper plates and, in 1839, they were revolutionary in their clarity.
Daguerreotypes took the world by storm, and people all around the world were making them. Daguerre and France had made use of the technology free to the world with one small exception. He took out a single patent in England, meaning everyone in the world but the English were free to use it.
Because the British had to pay, it also prompted experimentation with novel forms of the technology which spurred the photo industry forward even more.