25 January 2011

Book review of "Don't file a patent !"

John D. Smith, the author of Don't file a patent !, has asked me to review his book.

It is based on his reaction to having his patent application for hurricane window protectors rejected on three occasions, costing him a considerable sum. Much of the book covers the behaviour of the US Patent and Trade Mark Office. I do have sympathy, as often, I suspect, it costs more to patent a new product than the benefits of keeping out any competition. You also have to "police" the patent yourself -- find out about infringers -- and fight what could be a very costly court action.

Smith suggests that rather than patenting it is better to not do so, and to arrange with manufacturers to make it for you (rather than try to license it out to companies), and keep 100% of the profits. It also means you have 100% of the risk. He lists some famous products that have sold well but does not mention the many more that do not sell, or badly, due to for example poor marketing, a tiny market, a high price or an inability to compete with many products selling in the same market. It can cost £40,000 to tool up assembly lines to make a new product -- who pays for that ? Only 3% of published patent specifications, it has been suggested, ever make money.

The only use of patent attorneys, he suggests, is employing them for about $500 (about £314) to do a search to see if the product infringes existing patents. I would have thought that the US network of Patent and Trademark Depository libraries could have been mentioned, as they will do a search as well, and will help those who try searching for themselves. We'd do a search for about £150, by the way.

The most valuable part of the book consists of the many marketing suggestions. Mr Smith is clearly an inspired marketing man. For example he suggests mailing out the product in a clear plastic envelope so that people can see it on its way to the customer (only works for some kinds of products, though), and many gimmicks to attract attention to a product are mentioned.

The effective use of trade marks, and domain names incorporating them, is emphasized and I agree that they are often the most powerful tool available to sell a product.

The book is based on American practices and therefore is not always suitable for the European reader. It can be obtained through the Don't file a patent ! website.

24 January 2011

Chris Barnardo and "Dadcando"

A few days ago I was asked if I would mind meeting Chris Barnardo, one of the inventors of the Kymera Magic Wand, which I posted about back in August.

The product is a wand that you use instead of a remote to control, for example, televisions, music centres or lights. It has sold in over 70 countries. I don't normally meet successful inventors -- I am more used to talking to those who ask why they haven't been successful, or who are starting out -- and naturally agreed.

Chris is clearly passionate about everything he does. It has been said that the mark of a great entrepreneur is someone who really cares about delivering a fantastic service, or providing a superb product (and does so, of course). He designed all the artwork for the instructions and the box for the wand, as he has a background in design. He wanted a consistently "magical" feel, and the wand itself looks like a prop for a fantasy film, rather than a piece of electronic equipment. So there I was in the cafeteria, wielding the wand one way or the other. Up to 13 commands can be learnt by the wand.

Chris also gave me a copy of his book Dadcando. This is a beautifully illustrated, and laid out, guide to building things -- including the same wand and wand box as in his product, though without the electronics. A lot of junk can be lovingly made into attractive objects such as submarines if you follow the careful instructions.

The book came out of his experiences as a single dad, wanting to be close to his children. In his introduction Chris says that "dadcando revolves around an adventure into the creative mind of the child and the child in the heart of every dad".

You need to be good with your hands (unlike me) to make the most of the book, and with some time to spare, but for the right Dad (or Mum ?) the book is a delight.

21 January 2011

Invest Northern Ireland and innovation in Ulster

A few days ago I went to Belfast at the invitation of Invest Northern Ireland. I gave presentations on searching free Web databases in patents, designs and trade marks. As always it was stimulating, and I specially valued the opportunity to talk to delegates at the breaks about their problems and concerns.

Invest Northern Ireland is heavily involved in promoting innovation in Ulster. Last year they carried out 147 patent searches and 80 trade mark searches on behalf of clients. Much of what they do is provided for free, while other help is subsidised. This help included assistance with patent attorneys and designing trade mark logos.

There are two particularly relevant pages for contacting them for help. The Protecting intellectual property page is angled towards advice, while another page is where applications for help are made.

I was able to make a short walk nearby, admiring the grandeur of Belfast's City Hall, and I noticed on an adjacent street, Donegall Square East, a plaque to Harry Ferguson. He is probably the best known inventor to have been born in Northern Ireland. He invented the "Ferguson system" tractor, which involves hydraulic power lift linkage for coupling implements to tractors. It means that tractors can't topple backwards when encountering a boulder in their way. The plaque is on the Ulster Bank, formerly the location of his showroom.

Giving his address as 83 May Street, Belfast, Harry Ferguson applied in 1925 for the concept in British patent 253566. The main drawing is shown below.

Harry Ferguson patent drawing 
His name lived on for many years in the famous Massey Ferguson company, based in Canada, but Massey Ferguson is now only a brand name used by the new owners, AGCO.

17 January 2011

Inventing the better duvet

There's a new improved duvet (comforter in the USA) that stops arguments about the right temperature when tucked up in bed.

Couples often disagree about the duvet. One wants a thin covering so that they feel comfortable, while the other freezes and demands a thick duvet.

The CosyCool® has been designed to end those arguments. The Daily Mail on the 14 January had an article, End of the duvet wars ? which explains the invention, which came about because Ian Pressman was sweating in bed while wife Ruth felt very comfortable. The design means that a 4.5 tog rated duvet can be added to on one half by extra duvets, each also 4.5 tog. There are four extra duvets to allow for warmth for both or either of the couple. Buttons are used to fix them in place.

The couple, who are from St Albans, have their own website for their company, CosyCool Limited. The name is registered as a trade mark and hence is entitled to the ® symbol, but the site does not acknowledge that valuable protection.

British patent protection has been requested with the "6-in-1" Duvet. The main illustration is given below.

Cosycool duvet patent drawing 
The patent application acknowledges the known "3-in-1" duvet where a duvet can be added to for warmth at cool times of the year, but argues that it does not work when a couple want different temperatures on each side of the bed. Six patent specifications were cited in the application by the patent examiner as being similar.

The story reminded me of Joyce Bert of Leeds, who in August 2010 attracted some publicity for her easier to change duvet cover. I find them impossible to change easily, with lumpy duvets the result. The Daily Mail again with a story on the 26 August, A dream solution talks of her patenting her design and illustrates how it works. In a few words, it opens on three sides.

I could not find it as a published specification -- "patenting" means it has been published and granted rights, and should is a term that should only be used when that has actually occurred. I did find on the Searchable Patent Journal site that on the 29 April 2009 Joyce Nganga-Bert applied for a British patent for a "Duvet cover", numbered GB0907296. It "terminated" before publication on the 30 April 2010 -- the reason is not given.

The website is called Qande Duvet Covers. Apparently there is interest from major retailers.

13 January 2011

The KeepCup™

The British Library's caterers, Peyton & Byrne, have recently introduced a "KeepCup" to prevent wastage with disposable cups that are taken away by staff wanting hot drinks.

The idea is that you buy one for £6 and get ten free hot drinks. You simply take the cup in when you want a drink, instead of using disposable cups. It's all part of corporate social responsibility: it is up to the user to clean a cup, rather than using fresh cups. The illustration shows one of the models (you can choose colour combinations, to personalise so that others don't pick up your cup). The brown top seals in the hot drink, the red tab can be swivelled to enable a small drinking hole to appear, while the red band round the actual cup is supposed to insulate the hands when holding it. The claim is that the drink stays hot for 30 to 40 minutes longer than disposable cups.

Keepcup 

The cup itself is always the same colour and is made of polypropylene, as indicated by a recycling code at the bottom.

My colleague Maria Lampert bought one and noticed data at the bottom and, as she too works in intellectual property, wanted to know about any protection for it. The information is:

Keepcup™

keepcup.com.au

Des. Reg #

324241

A low design number usually suggests an American design, and the use of # instead of no. is typically American, but the USA has "design patents" and not "registered designs", and the Australian web site was a strong hint of its real origins. Maria quickly identified what seems to be its only design protection, Australian design 324241, registered in February 2009 by KeepCup Pty Ltd.

Below are the drawings shown for AU 324241 S from the official website.

Australian design 324241 
Despite the use of the TM symbol, which means not registered, it is in fact registered as a trade mark for "cups and mugs" in many countries (including the UK) through the Madrid Agreement Protocol as no. 1015268. Unlike the TM it would have force in civil law countries such as on the European continent, so the correct ® symbol should be used by the company.

12 January 2011

Rescuing avalanche victims

Every winter there are tragic stories of skiers who are caught in avalanches. Sometimes it is not possible to dig them out in time.

Some skiers carry electronic trackers, and there are also airbags available so that pulling a cord inflates it. An example is the patent specification Vest with air bag by William Haddacks of Toronto, Canada, illustrated here.

Vest with airbag patent image 
The idea is that the wearer is brought closer to the surface, and that the air bag, having expanded, deflates and leaves an air pocket for the skier while he or she awaits rescue.

The general idea may sound simple enough to search for -- simply combine the word "avalanche" with "air bag" -- but while some material can easily be found, others are more difficult to identify. As in the illustrated example. This explanation is based on using the free Espacenet database.

The searcher must allow for plurals (an extra character such as an s is requested by adding a ?), and for the spelling airbag (hence airbag? or "air bag?", where the quotes indicate a phrase).  Using the title search box is not a good idea, as the second box, which searches the abstract (summary) as well provides more wording to search.

avalanche? and (airbag? or "air bag") in the title gives us 4 hits.

avalanche? and (airbag? or "air bag") in the title or abstract gives us 7 hits.

A big problem is that many relevant patents only mention the word "avalanche" in the description, which Espacenet does not search. This is where other methods can be used. The initial page of the description often mentions other patents, and the "View all" command seen when a patent title is clicked on lists the patents cited as relevant against the known patent document and also later patent documents where in turn it was cited as similar to a later patent application. This can be very rewarding in suggesting other wording, besides showing other patents that may be relevant. For example:

(skier? or avalanche?) and (airbag? or "air bag") in the title or abstract gives us 11 hits.

As it is normal to revise searches, it is a good idea to add relevant patent specifications to "My patents list". This is a folder that is accessible on the left hand side of the screen, and is added to by ticking the "in my patents list" box. By doing so, any searches that show a document already in the list will already be ticked, so you know you do not need to look at it again.

Another good idea is to begin to check for relevant classifications. The latest list of 11 hits shows numerous blue "EC" classes, which can be clicked on to give definitions of the subject. The most obvious one seems to be A41D13/018, automatically inflatable garments. Ticking the class and then Copy transfers the search to a new search screen, wiping any wording.

As the idea of airbags -- or balloons ? -- is already covered, there is no need to use that wording. Adding to that class the wording

skier? or avalanche? in the title or abstract gives us 14 hits.

In fact, is skier too limiting ? Let's revise it again.

skier? or ski or skis or skiing or avalanche? in the title or abstract gives us 21 hits.

ski? would give us "skid", which we don't want. We still wouldn't have found the Haddacks document, though, as none of these words occur in the abstract. Its description does mention avalanches.

There is no perfect search. The more possibilities you add to a search, the more likely it is that unwanted material will turn up. We always advise those looking to see if their invention is new to ask for help from a Patlib library rather than relying on a look in free databases as it is so easy to miss relevant patents. 

11 January 2011

The BottleLox™ security device for bottles

I was in my local Sainsbury's when I noticed bottles of expensive drinks which had a grey plastic device over their necks, clearly meant to prevent theft.

The wording on them said that it was called BottleLox™, that it was manufactured by Catalyst under licence granted by Plescon, and that it was

Patent NO 6 822 567

and others worldwide

I investigated and found an American patent with that number, the Security device for a bottle. The inventor was Paul Francis Durbin of Hertford, England, and the applicant was Plescon Limited, which is in Suffolk, also in England. It has traditionally specialised in security solutions for libraries. It is odd that an American patent should be featured on a device for use in Europe. Here is the main drawing.

Plescon security device for bottle 
The patent explains the mechanism, which involves magnetism and can involve a RFID. The device must of course be cheap, reliable and easy to remove by authorised personnel. The patent was classified under the ECLA system as being for the prevention of theft of spectacles, instead of the more general and relevant class for anti-theft devices for articles to be removed at the check-out of shops. Many are for clothes, of course. The 151 currently indexed in that class that have been published in the so-called World (PCT) system are listed here.

US Design Patent 540650 shows what the device actually looks like when secured to the bottle.

A well-known security tag that formerly, at least, was often found attached to clothes is Identitech's Article surveillance system having target removal sensor. It is a white, flattish device. If someone departs with one still attached to the garment, a ferromagnetic effect sounds an alarm as the person walks through a special gate next to the door. The drawing shows the tag partially opened.

Article surveillance marker 

06 January 2011

Starbucks and its logos

Starbucks is going to change its famous logo to reflect its moving beyond its core product.

The logo shown below is very well-known and is protected in numerous countries as a trade mark.

Starbucks CTM 000596163 
If you removed the wording, most people would automatically associate it with coffee, and probably Starbucks itself.

Now, according to a BBC news story, the company wants to change it so that the logo only consists of the siren figure in green. The story shows the new image. [Also shown in a video clip by Howard Schultz, the CEO, helpfully located for me by Erwin Cortagerena, who comments below - Ed., 7 Jan.]

I am guessing this is because the company wants to move away from just selling coffee. This doesn't sound like a good idea to me. I agree with the sentiment expressed by James Gregory of Core Brand, who is quoted in the BBC story as saying "I think it's nuts".

When you have spent a lot of time in publicising the company name you don't throw all that work away. I do agree with the idea of dropping the word "coffee", and I like the logo which they registered some years ago:

Starbucks CTM 000175513 
This would assist any movement into new product areas. It looks odd having the word "coffee" if you are using the logo to publicise e.g. bakery products.

These trade marks can be found on the official Community Trade Marks database, which gives protection for the entire EU, by asking for trade mark numbers 596163 and 175513 (for the logo without "coffee"). These fuller details indicate the range of product areas for which protection was requested, as a trade mark registration is for specified products or services, not for everything -- although attempts to use a well-known trade mark in another area will usually be opposed on the grounds that the public are being confused or deceived about the origins of the product or service.

The company website has an explanation of the evolution of the trade mark and why they want to change it though, oddly, it is not illustrated with the new logo. There are also many hostile comments by members of the public, often saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" -- my sentiments exactly.

05 January 2011

Jonathan Rothberg's Personal Genome Machine

I've just read an interesting article in Forbes magazine, called Gene machine.

Jonathan Rothberg, the founder and CEO of Ion Torrent, has developed a "desktop gene machine", which he calls the Personal Genome Machine. It was given a soft launch on the 14 December. The scientific explanation is that the machine is "measuring the release of hydrogen ions as nucleotides get incorporated by DNA polymerase". Electronics is used instead of lasers or cameras.

The ability to sequence genes is vital in many medical and other fields. The new machine costs $500,000, which sounds a lot, but the cost was formerly ten times that. Each "run" will take an hour and will cost less than $500. Now hospitals and colleges can contemplate buying one, greatly expanding the research possibilities (and the size of this niche market). The magazine article uses graphics to explain how the invention simplifies the process of sequencing. The machine is, roughly speaking, a 50 cm cube.

I looked of course for patents, and list the 8 World patent applications made by Ion Torrent which mention Rothberg as an inventor.

04 January 2011

Hybrid air vehicles

I was watching the BBC news this morning and there was a feature on a hybrid airship which could behave like a helicopter, and which was by a British company called Hybrid Air Vehicles. Apparently the US military has signed a contract for $300 million to buy some. It has helium rather than hydrogen and therefore will not "explode", said the presenter. Actually, hydrogen burns and does not explode.

I decided to look at their patents, and spent a pleasant fifteen minutes trying to trace them. There are no patents listed on Espacenet under the name of Hybrid Air Vehicles. There is a website for the company, which names its product, Skycat, and says that its technology is “heavily patent protected worldwide”.

I checked the British patent filings on the UK IPO official website by searching the site for “hybrid air vehicle”. The UK lists the titles of newly filed patents under the name of the applicant, so that unlike most countries you don’t have to wait for publication. You only have a title, however. I found that a Hugh Michael Bonnin Stewart had been filing for patents from 2006 with that wording in the title.

I turned to Espacenet and entered “Hybrid air vehicle” and found three hits. Two were by Stewart, the third by someone called Roger Jeffrey Munk, who I disregarded at the time. These were the only two indexed by Espacenet for Stewart, and both gave himself as the applicant (normally it is a company name).

One was the Payload module/ passenger cabin for a hybrid air vehicle. Its main drawing is given below, with the left-hand drawing showing an unusual shape as seen from the front or rear.

Hybrid air vehicle drawing 1 
The other patent document is the Air-cushion landing system for a hybrid air vehicle which is mounted on the underside of the payload module or passenger cabin.

I looked on the Internet for mentions of other engineers associated with the company, and came across, depending on the web site, Roger Monk or Munk. I remembered Roger Jeffrey Munk from the list of three hits and looked for patent documents by him. Espacenet lists five patents by him, all on the general subject, with four different companies named as applicants.

One of these is the Lighter-than-air aircraft with air cushion landing gear means, with its main drawing shown below. Its similarity to the Stewart drawing above helps suggest the two are working together.

Airship with air cushion landing means 
Airships are ideal for surveillance as they can hover and can stay in the sky for a long time (up to five days, says the website), and in this case use 70% less fuel per tonne kilometre than conventional aircraft.

I would still have found the patents if the term "hybrid air vehicle" had not been used in their titles but it would have taken longer. Anyone interested in the company's technology will need to make a very careful search, even then often being uncertain what they own. That is because although presumably the patent rights have been assigned by Munk and Stewart to Hybrid Air Vehicles, these are not necessarily recorded on the official UK Patents Status Enquiry database, as that is not required. I see I am not the only person to be confused: a blog called Airshipworld has a number of postings including one called The Skycat puzzle continues.

The Companies House site shows that World Airships changed its name in 2001 to World Skycat, while Hybrid Air Vehicles changed its name in 2007 from earlier names. I checked for Skycat as a trade mark as it is used by Hybrid Air Vehicles but it is not registered as a current trade mark.

I wish the company luck in selling what sounds like a very interesting idea. Test flights are already happening near Cardington, the historic centre for British airships, with its massive sheds.