Amazon’s patent (U.S. Patent No. 9,280,157) for a “System and Method for Transporting Personnel Within an Active Workspace” has been in the news recently.
The invention is described as a device for keeping human workers safe in an automated (i.e., robotic) work environment. In the Background, the patent discusses the rapid rise of automation in inventory-handling systems. “Technological advancements have made an ever-increasing amount of automation possible in inventory-handling and other types of material-handling systems.” ‘157 patent at col. 1, ll. 7-9. “However, there may be circumstances where it is necessary for human operators to traverse, or otherwise go onto, an active workspace where the mobile drive units are carrying out their assigned inventory-related tasks.” ‘157 patent at col. 1, ll. 14-18. An automated work environment can be dangerous for human workers. As a solution, the patent proposes a transport device to transport a human worker safely through an automated inventory-handling work area. The premise, and the described need for the invention, sound reasonable enough. However, it’s the drawings of this patent that are garnering some unwanted attention.
The patent illustrates and describes the transport device as, well, a cage for workers. The Detailed Description describes the device as a “cage-like structure configured to substantially prevent the user from sticking an appendage through the enclosure.” ‘157 Patent at col. 13, ll. 51-53. Importantly, the claims of the patent (i.e. the scope of protection) are relatively broad and do not specifically require the cage-like structure. Claim 1, for example, is directed to an inventory-handling system to transport a user within a workspace, the system including a first device to transport users within the workspace, a second device to transport users within the workspace, and a management module directing movement of the two devices. Of course, this doesn’t render the imagery of work cages any less concerning.
A recent study conducted by two artificial intelligence researchers drew attention to the patent. The authors referred to the patent as: “an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines.” News of the patent quickly reached major outlets and social media.
Amazon’s Senior Vice President of Operations, Dave Clark, responded on Twitter: “This was never used and we have no plans for usage.”
This patent, the resulting blowback, and Amazon’s response highlight a couple of important points about patent protection.
First, patents (and, typically, patent applications) are publicly accessible documents. At the heart of the patent system is an exchange. The inventor obtains the right to exclude anyone from making or using the invention, but in exchange, must disclose that invention to the world. Thus a company seeking to obtain a patent, and particularly a high profile company like Amazon, should keep in mind that every word and drawing will be viewable by the public.
Second, Clark’s statement that the company has no plans to implement the cages is a reminder of the value a patent can have. A patent grants the owner a right to exclude others from practicing the invention. A patent owner need not actively practice the invention herself in order to enforce it against others. Even when a company is not looking to implement a particular invention, an issued patent on the concept may provide a leg up on competitors. The relatively broad claims of the Amazon patent, which do not rely on the cage design, allow Amazon to exclude its competitors from employing a system for transporting humans through an automated work space.