Great inventions are more often than not improvements on tested designs. The plough, the wheel, the printing press, all evolved from their simple to their modern forms by the work of hundreds of inventors over centuries. Other great inventions–and their corresponding patents–seem to come out of nowhere; a bolt of lightning strikes the inventor and an unprecedented new idea enters the world. An idea like the Pet Rock.
Ad man Gary Dahl “invented” the Pet Rock in a bar in Los Gatos, California, in 1975. The Pet Rock was to be the ideal pet, requiring none of the maintenance of those “outdated” biological ones. The concept was tongue-in-cheek, of course, and hugely successful, if short-lived. A year after its initial appearance, the Pet Rock was an old fad, but that didn’t stop plenty of imitators trying to steal its thunder, from the copycat “Original Pet Rock” to Pet Rock Obedience Lessons. Dahl never patented or trademarked his idea, and in retrospect it seems he didn’t have to; the fad was over and done with by the time it would have taken to approve a patent application. Dahl made millions from one simple idea and clever, aggressive marketing.
Could an idea like Dahl’s be patented today?
Natural processes and products like mineral deposits and plants expressly cannot be patented. There is no way to patent a rock as a rock. As of a few years ago US patent law allows genetically modified organisms to be protected, although the Pet Rock wasn’t really one of those. If the Pet Rock were a new invention, it would have required a utility patent. Utility patents must meet three criteria to be approved: novelty, non-obviousness, and utility. In other words, it has to be a new idea, one that would not strike an expert in the field as obvious, and it must have some use. Although it may sound ridiculous, when it was first introduced the Pet Rock met these criteria: it was a new idea, it was hardly obvious to geologists or toymakers, and it had utility, i.e., it made people laugh. With a really good patent lawyer, Dahl might have been able to get a utility patent to protect the Pet Rock as a new invention. The easier route would have been to trademark a design, etch it onto the rock, and to acquire a design patent on rocks etched with that trademark or logo.
Dahl’s story continues to inspire innovators with its simplicity, brilliance, and success, and raises questions about patents and the nature of invention. Could one, for example, patent custom cacti as home-security systems, banana peels as anti-personnel weapons, or trained song-birds as alarm clocks?