30 November 2010

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

London's first snowfall of the winter is falling as I type. The snowflakes are showing up well against the red brick of St Pancras station.

We don't normally have snow this early, and sometimes it only snows once or twice. I thought of inventions to do with simulating snow, and as usual America's inventors have not let me down. 

James LaChance of Michigan has an Apparatus for simulating falling snowflakes. A light source is projected onto a rotating spherical body having "small planar reflective surfaces" so that the rays are  reflected from several surfaces. Here is the main drawing.

Apparatus for simulating falling snowflakes 

William Bradley of Brooklyn has patented a Decorative article for simulating a snow scene. In it he mentions five earlier patents for carrying out the same general idea. This "prior art" discussion is something that American patents frequently give.

Decorative article for simulating a snow scene 
Above is the main drawing. As the illuminated snowman revolves a fan at the base sends simulated snowflakes swirling in a "snow storm".  

And then there is Carl Tenbrink of California, with his ambitious Snowfall simulator, shown below.

Snowfall simulator 

A tank is filled with water and "a plurality of small pellets". A pump creates water currents and causes the pellets to fall through the water to look like a snowfall. The patent itself gives the full story.

IP Healthcheck

The UK Intellectual Property Office has launched an IP Healthcheck page. It is free but you have to register.

Many companies are poorly informed about the intellectual property owned by the company. They may know about the patents, registered designs and registered trade marks they have, or perhaps they do not have any. Are they aware of the automatic rights they have such as copyright, design right, unregistered trade marks and trade secrets ? The idea is to get companies to answer questions so that they become more aware of the intellectual property they actually possess. 

A confidential report is sent back once the questions are answered. Inevitably this cannot be sophisticated, but at least it is a start for companies that simply don't know where to start. The knowledge of what they have can be used to gain a commercial advantage or to get financing, for example.

The links on the left hand side of the page are very useful as they list many sources of further help such as advisors and libraries that specialise in intellectual property. There are also links to business support publications such as non-disclosure agreements (also called confidentiality agreements).

In my experience a lack of awareness of contracts and non-disclosure agreements is often the biggest problems for start-ups who simply don't know where to start. Rather than talking to other companies and making verbal agreements I suggest that they first start asking for help on strategy from advisors. For example, here in London the British Library offers free one-hour Business & IP information clinics, where staff talk on a "one to one" basis to those planning to start up a business.

24 November 2010

The 50 best patent blogs

I'm pleased to say that this blog has been listed as one of the 50 Best Patent Blogs on the Guide to Online Schools site -- though sadly only as one of the "rest of the best" rather than among "our favourite five".

One of the favourite five was new to me, the Green Patent Blog®, by Eric Lane, a San Diego patent attorney. Its strapline is "covering intellectual property issues in clean technology". Understandably he focuses mainly on litigation rather than on the use of patent documents as blueprints for green innovation.

I was very interested in his post on Green patent policies and initiatives, where he discusses recent work. New to me was WIPO's IPC Green Inventory, a tool to assist finding patent classifications in the area. Once you have the right class, what do you do then ? I suggest my posting on using patent classifications is a good start if you are unsure.

I knew about the European Patent Office's final report Patents and clean energy: bridging the gap between evidence and policy, which has a lot of statistical analysis of trends in green patenting.

22 November 2010

Inventing the 21st Century exhibition: final week

It's the final week of our free Inventing the 21st Century exhibition so hurry if you want the chance to touch some cool products and see and hear about them. We've just added photos of the exhibits on Flickr's British Library photostream.

We wanted some interaction: so we came up with Invent it !, where we invited visitors to the exhibition to submit on slips of paper their ideas for what inventions were needed (not the solutions). They are then put on large clips so that others can read them.

We had a large and interesting response, and Mark Sheahan, our Inventor in Residence, has listed his favourites on the Invent it ! web page. Further suggestions can be made by the public on the Facebook page linked to there.

I've had a look at a hefty pile of suggestions, some distinctly thought-provoking. Here are some of them:

A pen that spell checks as it writes

A device that can turn other people's phones off if they talk too loudly on the tube

A means to enable learning by osmosis

A silent electric kettle so that I can listen to the radio while preparing breakfast

Heated hats and gloves

Some suggestions already have patented solutions -- heated gloves certainly exist.

It's been a privilege to curate the exhibition. We hoped to entertain, stimulate and educate. Above all, to inspire. I often heard discussion of inventions as I walked through, with comments on what they liked or didn't like, or thoughts about alterations to the products. Much innovation is based on precisely that: looking at existing technology and thinking of variations to make it cheaper or better.

I particularly liked it when an eight-year old was showing his two friends the video of the Lifesaver® water filter, and excitedly saying "watch out for this" when gunge was poured into the filter, and sparkling water resulted. Youth are the inventors of tomorrow, after all.

19 November 2010

Patents from Asia: conclusion

This is the sixth (and last) in a series on Asian patenting (see my initial survey, Japan, ChinaKorea and Taiwan posts). I have omitted India as at present relatively little patenting occurs from there, although that is likely to change.

A database that searches the databases of 19 authorities at once is Singapore’s SurfIP. These include (from Asia) Singapore itself, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Russia and Brazil are also included, so if India was added all the BRIC countries would be represented.

The default search is limited to Singapore, China (in translation) and the USA and you need to register (for free) to get further access. A search will produce titles and summaries showing the words highlighted (but not drawings), and the results can be ranked. The Intellogist site has a report briefly commenting on its features.

Those who need to know what database coverage is available for a country can use the Intellogist Interactive Patent Coverage Map.

Clicking on a country gives a list on the right hand side of official and non-official databases, including links to priced sites. Often of course the coverage is in international databases covering numerous countries. Hence India has links to its official sites, Questel, the Derwent World Patent Index and so on. If you’re not good at geography you may be in trouble. This is extremely useful although of course it may be awkward to figure out what to do next: what database do you select, how do you use it.

An approach I often explain to novices if a search is confined to free sources is to use Espacenet and then use "country codes" as limits. Suppose I enter a search using keywords. Usually material from the Far East dominates the early pages in the results. I may prefer initially to see material in English, in case I quickly find what I want. I can insert in the “publication number” box the codes


...which confines the search to Britain, the European regional system, the USA and the PCT or “world” system. It is true that both EP and WO material may be in other languages than English but most of the hits will be in English, and nearly all will have English summaries. I can then repeat the search but this time inserting in the “publication number” box the codes


...which confines the search to Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan. It is true that there will be some overlap because of the way the database works, but to a high degree I am now searching entirely new material.

I adjust this approach when using the ECLA classification (the EC box in the search page). As ECLA is mostly confined to the USA, the EP system and some European countries and the World system I usually run a search without limiting it by authority. I then use the same classification in the bottom, IPC box on the search page and limit it to those Asian countries, again to avoid repetition in the results.

This can be more complicated than it sounds as the ECLAs can be longer, more precise classes than the IPCs (which always end with a number, e.g. /12, as opposed to /12C or /12C2), and the class itself has to be found using the Classification Search function in Espacenet.

For priced searches (which is what I normally do) we turn to a database we recently subscribed to, TotalPatent™. It enables full text searches in English or using machine translations for patents from China (from 1986) and Japan (from 1975) and many other countries such as Germany and Russia. In practice I normally confine searches in this database to title, abstract and claims to avoid being swamped by material. Intellogist also has a report on this database.

We charge under £150 for searches on the database. Enquiries can of course be made to our Research Service.

18 November 2010

The Vortex hand dryer

Last night I was at a gathering in London by SA Vortex, to launch a revolutionary new hand dryer.

I gave a brief presentation about what our Business & IP Centre does for innovators and business people -- and mentioned in passing our very competitive £150 patent searches -- and we heard about, and saw demonstrated, a product that I can genuinely say impressed me. Here I am, lecturing to the audience.

SAVortex01 (42) 

The hand dryer dries hands in ten seconds yet uses up to 80% less power than the "next best hand dryer" uses. It's cheaper, too. It does cost more than the basic hand driers (it's £550) but those, with brush motors, release carbon particles and break down more easily, and cost a lot more to run.

The emphasis is on sustainability, with low carbon emissions due to the low power consumption. That also means it's less prone to breakdowns (the brushless motors are more robust, too). Increasingly companies will be billed for high emissions, and an amazing amount of power can be used in corporate washrooms. Working at 700 watts, 50 dries cost one penny in power costs. The payback period is less than 2 years.

So how does it work ? The basic idea is that the heat that is blown downwards at the hands bounces back to be recovered and recycled back at the hands. Hence the vortex. The inventors are Peter Williams and Syed Ahmed, who some will remember from his appearance on The Apprentice. He is also the (enthusiastic) CEO of the company.

Apparatus for drying a person's hands is one of their patents, with the main drawings shown below.

Vortex hand dryer 
I met Syed in 2006 when he came to the British Library and we were filmed together for a documentary about the idea. We did a patent search for him and helped with suggestions and provided market research. I'm pleased to see that such a useful product (that looks good, too) has evolved out of those early beginnings.   

More information is available at the company website, while Syed tells his story in this video.


17 November 2010

The hands-free umbrella

Yesterday I came across an article in the free Metro newspaper about taxi-driver Ibrar Ahmed from Bolton and his hands-free umbrella.

A photograph in the article shows the idea. A strap is used to fix the umbrella to a handbag to make his "Hands Free Brolly Bag". It took him two years to design, and is available for £14.99. The article says that Ahmed is "now hoping to get it patented". 

Oh dear.

If he didn't file a patent application before the disclosure of the idea then he won't get a patent, as only confidential disclosures are permitted before the filing date. Possibly Ahmed has filed for a patent -- I've checked and no filings in his name are recorded so far in the official patent journal. [Ed. -- I've just checked and find that on the 9 December 2010 he filed for a patent for "An umbrella holder"]

There's also the matter of whether or not it really is new. Perhaps Ahmed has checked the "prior art" in the patents. In his case the Manchester Patlib library is a good place to go to get expert help.

There are many patents for bags containing umbrellas such as Delila Ramos' of New York with her Wet umbrella carrying bag, illustrated below.

Wet umbrella patent image 
There are also patents for clips and straps on umbrella handles, such as the one by Tumi, Inc. of New Jersey, the Umbrella with elastomeric strap, with its main drawing shown here.

Umbrella with elastomeric strap patent 
There are quite a few patent documents where their titles have the word "umbrella" and the summary provided by the applicants have the word "handbag" (though the concept could be described in different words). Here is a listing from the Espacenet database. Many are from China.

Among them, I liked Charles O'Connell of Boston's Convertible umbrella and handbag.

16 November 2010

The Bricky® hand tool for bricklaying

I was watching TV when an advertisement came on about a bricklaying tool, the Bricky®.

Someone I recognised from one of the first "reality" programmes, Garden Force, was enthusing about it and saying something along the lines of "like all the best inventions it's so simple". I'm not sure I'd agree with that statement, though the invention is indeed simple.

Anyway, the Bricky® is by Noel Marshall from county Cork, Ireland. His patent application, since granted protection, is A bricklaying tool, and here is the main drawing.

Bricky invention image 
The patent application comments on the waste when novices try bricklaying. They slap on the mortar and then the bricks, and surplus mortar slips down the sides of the bricks. The tool has a slot, brick-sized, down the middle which receives the mortar. A spirit level built into the tool ensures that the line of bricks is horizontal. A handle at one end enables the tool to be laid down. It certainly seems like an  effective solution to the problem. The company claims it makes wall building "3 times faster, easy, clean and precise". 

The trade mark was registered many years ago but oddly the company website gives the word Bricky a ™ rather than the ® to which it is entitled. The difference is that the latter symbol is stronger protection, as in "common law" countries such as the UK and the USA you do not need to prove that your name is well known and that you are suffering from the competition before asking for a court case to begin. Admittedly, the website does state "Bricky is a trademark of Marshall Tools Ltd." but the word Bricky should always be given with the appropriate ® symbol.

Similarly, patents were granted in Europe (January 2010) and in the USA (March 2006) yet "patent pending" is given. Giving accurate information about the intellectual property relating to your invention is simply good policy. 

Here's a video where the inventor explains his product.


05 November 2010

Inventing the 21st Century exhibition and YouTube

The British Library's free Inventing the 21st Century exhibition closes on the 28 November. 

We've all very been pleased to see so many people looking around it. It's not normal that we allow visitors to touch the exhibits, but that's not a problem here.

Here is our introductory video to the exhibition.


There are also interviews with some of the inventors.

Some were conducted at the opening of the exhibition. There's Alvin Smith, with his Searaser wave energy invention; Mike Spindle, with his Trikinetic wheelchair; Yusuf Mohammad, with his Automist fire-suppressant invention; and an explanation of the Gocycle electric bicycle by one of Richard Thorpe's colleagues.

Others were filmed in a studio. There's Natalie Ellis, with her Road Refresher dog bowl; Tanya Ewing, with her Ewgeco utilities monitor; and Samuel Houghton, the boy who invented a double broom.

I noticed at lunchtime a small knot of eight-year olds watching a video in the exhibition. It was Michael Pritchard's demonstrating his Lifesaver water purification bottle. One was explaining to the others what to look out for as filthy water was poured into the bottle, and after the cleansing process Michael drank the resulting clean water. Their interest was gratifying; though, as one boy struggled (unsuccessfully) to remove part of the exhibited bottle, I thought that boys will be boys.

04 November 2010

Wallace and Gromit's World of Invention: nature inspiring invention

The first of six half hour episodes in a new series on inventions was shown on BBC last night, Wallace and Gromit's World of Invention.

There will also be a (free) road show to encourage interest in inventing, from the 6 November to the 12 December, at six shopping centre locations: Bristol, Bluewater (Kent), Glasgow, Milton Keynes, Manchester and Derby. There is of course a Home page for the series.

This first episode was about nature inspiring invention, something often called biomimicry.  We heard about termite mounds inspiring self-cooling buildings and artificial gills and so on. Incidentally I've found an interesting blog on that subject, the (anonymous) Biomimicry and Remote Sensing Inventions site.

The show did not mention my three favourites in the area. There's Velcro®, the most successful product based on copying nature. Swiss inventor George De Mestral had noticed burrs stuck on his dog's hair. This was published in the USA as Velvet type tape and method of producing same.

I also like Kevlar®, though there the principle may not be deliberate mimicry. Conventional bullet-proof vests consist of layers of materials which try to absorb the shock of the bullet. Kevlar® is more like a spider's web, where the shock is dissipated across the vest, in the same way a web trembles if touched. Hence the stress at the point of impact is much less. Du Pont's invention has the patent title Process for the production of a highly orientable, crystallizable, filamentforming polyamide.

Then there's Lotus-Effect®, where German academic Wilhelm Barthlott investigated the way water rolled off large lotus leaves. They do this by having vast numbers of tiny peaks on their surface. The principle has been used to make among other things exterior wall paint that never gets dirty (if exposed to rainwater). His Self-cleaning surfaces of objects and process for producing same explains.

i have already posted about trade marks for the Wallace and Gromit characters themselves.