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From pencil sharpeners to a $539m lawsuit: how big tech weaponised patents

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April 13, 2021 at 06:00AM

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In 1842, the US patent office registered 14 designs, including a bathtub and a ‘corpse preserver’. It now handles 35,000 a year. Why did this once sedate world became a corporate arms race?

It was designed to make sharpening a pencil feel as thrilling as flying a jet. A gleaming chrome teardrop, tapered to a point and adorned with a bullet-like handle, Raymond Loewy’s aerodynamic tail-fin pencil sharpener brought the glamour of the machine age to the humble office desk.

As the godfather of American industrial design, Loewy gave his streamlined signature to trains, planes and Coca-Cola vending machines, defining the sleek art deco look of the 1930s. But his go-faster pencil sharpener never made it into production, deemed one chrome-plated, deco-styled step too far. The design does survive in the form of its patent, filed in 1933 and now republished as one of 1,000 such protected inventions, brought together in a new book.

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