Our obsession is best evidenced by the tremendous success of AMC’s television series “The Walking Dead,” about the zombie apocalypse. The show first aired on Halloween night in 2010 and was watched by 5.35 million viewers. It premiered worldwide the same week, in 120 countries. The premier was preceded by a zombie invasion (orchestrated by AMC and Fox) on October 26, 2010 in 26 cities throughout the world, including Hong Kong, Taipei, and Los Angeles. The show is now going strong in its fourth season.
Movies about zombies are also alive and well. Since 1980, zombie movies have brought in almost $1 billion. The highest grossing zombie movie was Sony’s 2009 “Zombieland,” bringing in $75 million since it opened. “Warm Bodies,” one of several zom-rom-coms (as this genre is now called) has grossed $65 million since it opened three months ago. Other favorites include the “Resident Evil” and “Night of the Living Dead” series, and “Shaun of the Dead.”
Thus, even though zombies have been walking (slowly) among us for hundreds (thousands?) of years, we have really just recently (as evidenced by our 33 years of TV and movies) noticed them. Zombies have been here all along. In fact, they are way ahead of us in the intellectual property world.
Zombies have amassed a significant number of U.S. patents for their inventions. The biggest problem zombies face is a defining one: how to come back from being dead. The undead have developed several inventions to solve this problem and they have obtained patents on these inventions. (We are not sure why a zombie would want a patent, but we don’t know who to ask, so we can’t tell you.)
As far as we know, zombies began getting patents in the late 1800s, taking advantage of humans’ fear of being buried alive. At that time, medical technology had not advanced enough to confirm that a person was really dead. A lot of people were dying from very contagious diseases such as smallpox and cholera, so instead of leaving the bodies out for a few days and observing the decay (a sure sign of death), people buried the dead quickly. While this practice was a positive step in preventing the diseases from spreading, it had the negative effect of fueling our fear of being buried alive. This fear was exacerbated by rumors and newspapers reporting instances of burying the living.
Most of the zombie patents were for safety coffins (22 patents were issued from 1868-1925) and other devices to allow the living dead to escape. The stated purpose of the safety coffins patents was to prevent “premature burial,” or, as one patent stated, to detect “the recurrence of life in persons that have been buried in a state of trance or apparent death.” These safety coffins had various devices to help the undead come back from the grave, including bells attached to ropes that the living corpse would pull to signal someone above, a spring-loaded lid, and a string attached to the corpse’s finger. Some of the safety coffins also had tubes to the outside to allow air into the coffin; others had glass lids to allow people on the outside to observe the dead coming back to life. One of the strangest safety coffins had a hammer above the corpse’s head that was triggered by the corpse’s movement. The hammer would break a glass window above the corpse’s face, resulting in the undead rejoining the living with a face full of glass and a bump on the head. (Presumably, those injuries would not deter a zombie.)
Even though we now have accurate methods of determining death, there are still new patents being issued for inventions to help the undead escape. One such patent is U.S. patent no 4,367,461 issued on January 4, 1983 for a coffin-alarm system that utilizes a battery operated signal.
On the other side, our fear of the zombie apocalypse has spawned many inventions to help us fight off a zombie attack. These inventions include a zombie-proof house that turns itself into a fortress, complete with thick concrete walls, steel enclosures, and a drawbridge. There is also an armored zombie-proof car, a water filtration system and an aqua-farm system that we can use to prepare clean water and grow food, and many types of weapons (axes, slingshots, and others). There is even a special body-armor suit to protect us from zombie bites.
So far, it appears that the zombie side has won in the IP game – they have more patents to help them come after us than we have to ward them off. They may move slowly, but zombies are here to stay.