It was seen that the works of founders of States, law-givers, tyrant-destroyers, and heroes cover
but narrow spaces and endure but for a time; while the work of the inventor, though of less pomp,
is felt everywhere and lasts forever.          - Francis Bacon Preface to a Treatise on Interpreting Nature

The Design of Everyday Things

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How to Design Breakthrough Inventions

A CBS interview of IDEO founder David Kelley

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

April 2011

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.

     -  On Poetry: a Rhapsody     Jonathan Swift

Innovation in a free market is risky.  For example, a utility patent can help to minimize the risk of competition, but is itself a risk.  Investment (from $10,000 to $30,000) in a patent application is wasted if the patent office denies grant of a patent.  And a patent doesn’t even guarantee that we can use, sell, or profit from embodiments of our own inventions, though we can often do so without a patent.  Patent attorney Ronald Aust helped us understand the risk of a utility patent and how to minimize it.

In some ways, a patent is like a land deed.  A deed specifies where someone’s land is; claims of a patent specify where (in the world of useful ideas) someone’s invention is.  Owners of either land or invention can tell others to keep off their property, can sell or rent their property, and can use their property to develop business relationships.  Both land and invention can be inaccessible to the owner if they are enclosed by another’s property.  For example, if you improved someone else's recently patented chair by adding rockers to it, you might need to reach a cross-licensing agreement with that person before you could sell your patented rocking chair.

Unlike a land deed that can convey a high probability of permanent ownership, a patent conveys a moderate probability of time-limited (usually about 17 years) ownership.  A patent is just the patent office’s tentative (though influential) opinion that a patent holder owns intellectual property.  Anyone may, for good reason, challenge that opinion in a federal court.  If the court decides that the patent is invalid or unenforceable, the defending patent owner loses the patent and at least $300,000 in legal expenses.

Not every innovator needs a patent.  If the law would let you sell embodiments of your patented invention, it would often let you sell those same embodiments without having a patent.  A patent is only one means of protecting your share of the market.  Other protective means include persuasive marketing and public relations, an enthusiastic sales force, a strong business network, or high startup costs.  Especially for a fad invention whose popularity will quickly fade, or for an invention that won’t yield enough profit to attract competitors, it might make more sense to skip the patent and go straight to market.

The first step toward obtaining a patent is to show that the invention works (utility patents are granted only for useful inventions).  That can be done explicitly (in an actual reduction to practice) by testing a physical form of the invention, or implicitly (in a constructive reduction to practice) by filing a patent application.

The second step is to enter the lengthy (think at least 2 years) patent application process, usually through one of two doors.  The earlier and tentative entry – a provisional patent application – leads only to protection (for 1 year) of a place in line at the patent office.  This gives an applicant time to save money for the patent process, to study the market, or to decide whether the benefits of a patent will outweigh the costs.  The later and assertive entry – a nonprovisional patent application – may be opened directly or via the tentative entry, and can lead to a patent.  Opening this door by filing a nonprovisional patent application starts a dialog between the applicant and the patent office examiner.  They discuss whether the invention merits a patent, and if so, what the final form of the patented invention will be.  If all goes well, and after the applicant pays several fees, the examiner will allow issue of a commercially valuable patent to the designated owner of the invention.  If the examiner decides instead to deny issue of a patent, appealing the decision or requesting continued examination of the application can still result in a patent.  Keeping the patent for several years requires payment of more fees.

Literature searches performed before filing a patent application decrease the risk of wasting money.  If a patentability search finds that someone else invented your invention first, there is usually no reason to file a patent application.  If a freedom-to-operate search finds that using your own invention will require negotiation of a cross-licensing agreement, you will be able to make a more informed decision about whether to file an application.

While your provisional or nonprovisional patent application pends, you might study the marketability of your invention.  If few people would buy the invention at your selling price, you might decide to cut your losses and abandon the application.

Pending legislation (America Invents Act, H.R. 1249, S. 23) proposes to grant a patent to the first inventor to file a patent application, rather than to the first to invent.  If that Act becomes law, filing a series of provisional applications on inventive increments, as your invention develops, will decrease the risk of losing the race to another inventor.

Thank you, Mr. Aust, for helping us decide whether to patent our inventions.

Patent Drawings by Richard McVicker

Some inventions patented by our members:

Bob Brand
3,179,907 Tuning system for television receivers
3,219,933 Television tuner switching system
3,241,072 Tuning control system
3,538,466 Television tuner cast housing with integrally cast transmission lines
4,503,740 Optical cutting edge locator for a cutting apparatus
4,503,896 Dog system for veneer slicer
4,601,317 Veneer slicing system
5,511,598 Veneer-slicer with remotely controllable blade angle adjustment
5,562,137 Method and apparatus for retaining a flitch for cutting
5,590,700 Vacuum flitch table with self-cleaning vacuum valve
5,678,619 Method and apparatus for cutting veneer from a tapered flitch
5,680,887 Veneer slicer with timing belt
5,694,995 Method and apparatus for preparing a flitch for cutting
5,701,938 Method and apparatus for retaining a flitch for cutting
5,819,828 Method and apparatus for preparing a flitch for cutting
5,868,187 Method and apparatus for retaining a flitch for cutting
7,395,843 Method and apparatus for retaining a flitch for cutting
7,552,750 Method and apparatus for cutting veneer sheets from a flitch

Rick Hanson
6,240,579 Unitary pedal control of brake and fifth wheel deployment via side and end articulation with additional unitary pedal control of height of patient support
6,253,397 Deployable siderails for a wheeled carriage
6,256,812 Wheeled carriage having auxiliary wheel spaced from center of gravity of wheeled base and cam apparatus controlling deployment of auxiliary wheel and deployable side rails for the wheeled carriage
6,264,006 Brake for castered wheels
6,507,964 Surgical table
D474,446 Sterilizable battery component

Bob Humbert
4,281,368 Keyhole illuminating apparatus

Ron Jackson
4,886,110 HVAC zone control system
4,943,039 Adjustable clamp
4,987,409 Level sensor and alarm
5,132,669 Level sensor with alarm
5,381,989 Adjustable spring clamp
5,944,098 Zone control for HVAC system
6,145,752 Temperature monitoring and control system
6,322,443 Duct supported booster fan
D347,596 Audible security alarm
D376,747 Door security device

Jerry McQuinn
D689,343 Universal Nutcracker

Richard McVicker
3,261,937 Three position snap switch utilizing interference blade means
3,319,477 Timer Escapement
3,332,704 Manually propelled treadmill vehicle
4,625,616 Thumb pick
6,309,076 Light barrier, screen or reflector
D240,237 Sculpture or the like
D356,653 Yard light
8389839 Thumb pick

Bill Pangburn
5,943,831 Device for Hauling Objects

Al Robbins

3,882,960 Ride quality control for surface effects craft
3,946,689 Air dynamo pressure regulation and modulation device for surface effect ships and air cushion vehicles
6,588,702 Lighter-than-air device having a flexible usable surface

Matt Thie
4,844,446 Multiple-compartment currency stacker-sorter
4,940,162 Rolled coin dispenser
7,298,280 Lighted fluid flow indication apparatus
7,617,826 Conserver

Richard Tucker
5,833,751 Powder coating booth having smooth internal surfaces
6,840,367 Material handling and manufacturing system and method
6,976,835 Manufacturing system and process
7,018,579 Manufacturing system and process

Don Walls
D707090 Torque key lever
RE36209 Door lock apparatus

Dave Zedonis
5,637,926 Battery powered electronic assembly for wheel attachment

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