The recent discussion on the Intellogist blog about missing patent documents in the USPTO patent database reminded me of the curious case of patent no. 3,060,165. The full-text TIFF image of this patent was removed from the USPTO database sometime in 2003. The exact date of and reason for its disappearance are not readily available, but here is what is known:
Our story begins in 1962 when a team of scientists working for the U.S. Army received a patent for a method of producing ricin, a deadly poison made from ordinary castor beans. Why the military would want to patent such a thing is beyond me. Why they would allow it to be disclosed to the world in a patent document is equally mystifying. Maybe they wanted to strike a cross-licensing deal with the Soviets.
Ricin has been implicated in at least one political assassination, the 1978 murder in London of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov by communist agents, and, more recently, terrorist attacks in Washington, DC. In February 2004, a small amount of ricin was found in the mailroom of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Luckily, no one was injured, but several buildings on Capitol Hill were closed for about a week. (New York Times, Feb. 4, 2004) But our patent had disappeared long before ricin was discovered in the Senate mail.
For forty years patent 3,060,165 resided in happy obscurity in the search files of the USPTO. It attracted little attention, being cited in only two other patents. Its debut on the web probably occurred in October 2000 when the USPTO completed loading all patent documents into the PatFT database. Things changed suddenly in February 2003 when television station WABC of NYC aired a sensationalist report that chided the USPTO for allowing the public to have access to a "recipe for a bio-terror weapon more deadly than cyanide". Apparently, this caught the attention of several prominent politicians from New York who started asking questions. The patent quietly vanished from the USPTO website.
Security experts were quick to debunk the idea that the patent was a threat to the public safety. (GlobalSecurity.org, July 24, 2004) In fact, its removal from the USPTO database was completely ineffective because copies remained available in other open patent databases such as Google Patents and the German Patent Office's Depatisnet system. In addition, dozens of libraries in the USPTO's patent depository library network probably have copies on microfilm.
The patent was never connected to the 2004 Capitol Hill incident, but it did surface later that year in a bizarre extortion case involving a Maryland man, Myron Tereshchukin. In March 2004, FBI agents raided Tereshchukin's home and found, among other dangerous substances, ingredients for making ricin and a copy of the notorious patent. The FBI had been investigating Tereshchukin for making threats against MicroPatent, a patent information company that is now owned by Thomson Reuters. (New York Times, Aug. 7, 2005) In Sept. 2005, Tereshchukin pled guilty to possession of a biological weapon and possession of explosives and was sentenced to seven years, plus three years probation. (FBI, WMD Cases) I think it's about time for the USPTO to acknowledge that this patent is not a threat and make it available again for public inspection.
I'm the librarian for research services in the Engineering and Science Library at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. I've been working with patent information since 1991, including seven years at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. I believe that the dissemination of patent information is a public good and should be promoted, especially in the education of science and engineering students.