A new way of understanding the high but elusive worth of intellectual property

IT IS TESTAMENT to human inventiveness that 50m patents are estimated to have been granted globally. But in aggregate much of the collection resembles an intellectual junkyard. Included are plausible ideas that no firm ever wanted to pay for, plausible ideas that fell short, and absurdities. A patent on the crust-less peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, for example, failed to be renewed in 2007.

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Pare the list to those that are both sensible and in force legally, meaning a fee is paid to a patent office to keep them alive, and there are 16m patents that count. Last year,

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