Examiner of Silly Patents, Part 2: Motorized ice cream cone

Every now and then I will take a silly patent and pretend it isn’t silly. I will analyze and defend it in all faux-seriousness (see disclaimer at the end).  Usually I cannot defend it, but learn something in the process anyways.  Suomeksi: klikkaa tästä.

US 5,971,829 from 1999: Motorized ice cream cone. ” A novelty amusement eating device for supporting, containing, rotating and sculpting a portion of ice cream or similar malleable food while it is being consumed compromising: a hand-held housing, a cup rotatably supported by the hand-help housing and adapted to receive and contain a portion of ice cream or food product of similar consistency, and a drive mechanism in the hand-help housing for imparting  rotation upon the cup and rotationally feeding its contents against a person’s outstretched tongue.”

For some reason, this patent seems to be in almost everyone’s all-time lists of crazy patents.

The invention is similar to two earlier patents: US 5,209,692 for a spinning piece of hard candy and US 5,536,054 for a wobbling lollipop. The inventor, however, argues that neither of these is relevant, since “neither of these devices adequately serves as a means for consuming softer, more malleable foods such as soft ice cream, yogurt, or pudding.” It therefore seems that there have been good grounds for granting this patent.

A bit of analysis shows that this is actually a heavily patented field; the older patent 5,209,692 has been cited in 44 newer patents between 1994 and 2009,  including US 5,7500,981 for an ear-cleaning device. The newer US 5,536,054 has been cited in 22 other patents, including US 5,676,988 for a U.F.O. pop.  The competition in this field is cut-throat, in other words.

Patenting in the ice cream cone business is nothing new; an article What’s Cooking America by Linda Stradley mentions at least four patents before 1925 alone.

IDFA reports that about 1.52 billion gallons of ice cream are sold in the US per year (5.7 billion liters in human-readable units). The report does not cite exact figures for numbers of cones sold, but it is in the hundreds of millions.

Patenting is all about money. The patent makes sense if   a) many people want to use one of these contraptions    b) they are willing to pay for them.

The cost of getting a patent  could be estimated to be about 10,000 USD (based on estimates here). It is not really possible to estimate the cost of making a cone like this, but some ballpark estimates can be based on similar devices.  I would make a ballpark estimate of 4 USD per cup. This would be unacceptable for a disposable cup, but would people be willing to pay say 5 USD? A profit margin of 5% would mean 25 cents per cup.

The most likely place to sell these would be amusement parks. About 300 million Americans visit amusement parks each year. It is not completely absurd to expect 1/3 of them to buy an ice cream cone. However, a huge majority will of course buy just a normal ice cream. If even one percent buy a novelty cone, there would be a potential of 1 million customers for novelty cones.

In practice, this market would be fragmented among many amusement parks and manufacturers. A 10% share in almost any market would be huge, but assume that these cones achieve that share. That is 100,000 cones per year. With the 25 cent profit, this means a profit of perhaps 25,000 USD per year.

If the patent can be enforced, this means that the cost of patenting would be offset well within the first year of sales. It is a completely different question whether the cones as such are a good business; however, patenting them would certainly make sense.

The figures above may be exaggerated, but they are probably in the right ballpark. The more crucial point is that it will have been possible for the inventor to make such calculations; and it may well have been a valid business choice to go ahead and patent.

In other words, there is nothing stupid about this patent. Silly yes, but not stupid. Ice cream is a huge business, amusement parks are a huge business; combine those two, and there is plenty of room for small novelty items. I have no idea whether the inventor has made any money on this patent. But even if he lost, there is nothing shameful in it. He could equally well have succeeded.

In cases like this, my attitude tends to be: it’s easy to laugh, but what have you done lately? At least the inventor tried. Hats off for him!

Full set of Examinations of Silly Patents: click here.

Disclaimer: these analyses have very little to do with anything, and in particular have nothing to do with legal issues. Most of the patents cited are expired (or should be). I do not touch the “claims” section, which is the legally relevant part. These blogs constitute prior art, so that any new any ideas expressed here can no longer be patented.