I retired in April 2013 after 25 years as a librarian at the British Library specialising in inventions. This included running numerous workshops; writing books on inventions and a work blog; carrying out searches for clients; and one-to-one meetings with inventors. [more]


21 September 2014

Dragons' Den: The YoungOnes

A week late, I watched an episode of Dragons' Den which was first shown on the 15 September. I was interested in the pitch for YoungOnes by Chris Rea, 21, and Tom Carson, 23, with their price competitive "onesies" for university students. They are themselves from Exeter.

The name of the business (with a website) refers to student rebellion and to a BBC programme shown 1982-84, with a truly anarchic sense of humour that I for one found hilarious. I'm not sure how much young people respond to something three decades old, but maybe that doesn't matter. They knew their facts, even if they were nervous under the questioning. They were confident that the vogue for onesies would continue.

They offered 15% of the equity in exchange for £75,000, which valued the company at £500,000. The dragons had fun putting the onesies on, but for some reason they were marked YO rather than YoungOnes. Peter Jones pointed out that Yo was owned as a trade mark by Simon Woodrofe's Yo ! Limited. You don't actually own every business sector with a trade mark (unless it's a "famous" trade mark) but indeed Yo! does own a European trade mark for it in Class 25, which covers clothing, EU 637637. The boys should have done their homework.

(So, to be honest, should have Evan Davis, the respected economics voice on the programme, who spoke of concerns over "copyright" -- trade marks are not the same as copyright, as you cannot copyright a few words).

What the boys do have is the British trade mark for YoungOnes for clothing, with UK2648803 (owned by youngones apparel ltd.). That's the far more attractive (and safe) name they should have put on the onesies.

The verdict ? Duncan Bannatyne offered them, with his usual poker face, the whole £75,000 in return for 40% of the equity. He was asked if he would take 30%. No, he said, it was a fair offer. They discussed it, and one said he didn't know he would say to his father, and they accepted. Duncan was very pleased, saying it was a great opportunity for him. The mentioned father had said they should never give away more than 30%, incidentally.

There is more about the business on an Exeter business page. Their degrees are very relevant -- Chris' was in business and psychology, Tom's in business management and marketing. Watch out for the product on university campuses !

9 September 2014

Apple's new wearable technology patent applications

Apple is about to make a big announcement today about their next big product, after a gap of four years. As usual, presumably, they will announce any totally new product at the end, with "One more thing...". The Toronto Star among others speculates as the faithful wait.

There is a lot of speculation that it might be a wearable device, an iWatch. Not sure what they will call it -- there is already US85703706, a filing for that word as a trademark registration for class 38, telecommunication services by OMG Electronics -- though, fatally perhaps, not for devices worn on wrists. Thanks to Minesoft's tmquest for that information.

I've checked for any US patents filed by Apple since 2013 that mention the word "wearable" (anywhere in the text). There are an amazing number published in just 2014, over fifty. None have "wearable" in the title.

These include Configurable buttons for electronic devices, published 28 August. This from a quick look is the most obviously relevant. A couple of its drawings are given below.

And what about their Bi-stable spring with flexible display, published in February 2013. It doesn't sound promising, but the drawings are interesting. Here is the main drawing.

I did find it independently, but that one was well covered at the time, quite rightly in my opinion, by sites such as an Appleinsider posting.

4 September 2014

Listing patent status registers

Patent status covers things like when was a patent specification published in its different stages, is it awaiting grant, have renewal fees being paid, has it run its full term and expired.

Some patent authorities have made free data available either on separate status databases or have incorporated it in their ordinary databases. The alternative is to ask them. Below is a list of those that I am aware of.  Many are in English.

Those that can be accessed via the free Espacenet database are marked by an asterisk *. If a certain record is found, then a link is provided to the status data. For example, see the record for GB2471438, where the link to "GB Register" is just below the Bibliographic data in big, bold type, below the top banner.

I am sorry to say that I gave up trying to find the individual sites for Belgium, Greece and Italy.

Belgium *
Denmark *
European Patent Convention *
Finland *
France *
Greece *
Italy *
Norway *
Sweden *
Switzerland *
United Kingdom*
United States

Otherwise, Espacenet has an "Inpadoc legal status" tab on the left hand side when viewing information on a patent specification. There is often little data, or it is hard to understand it, but still, better than nothing.

The existence of the legal status databases is not given in the valuable data on Intellogist's Interactive Patent Coverage Map, and I would like to suggest that it would augment an already very useful site. For some reason the French site, at least, is indeed listed and explained. You find data on what online sources (some priced) cover a country by clicking on the continent, then on the country.

It would be helpful if the same software was used by new countries, partly to avoid duplicate effort and partly to help searchers using databases from different patent authorities.

Although I use patent status to determine if a patent is in force, ownership information is also very important for due diligence searches. If a company takeover is contemplated or occurring you obviously want to know what is owned by the company. As companies are not required to record changes in ownership or assignments (to my knowledge it is everywhere voluntary), you cannot rely on the owner name on a published patent specification. There may be false positives (it apparently has patents it doesn't have) or false negatives (it doesn't appear to have patents it does actually have).

Data on litigation (such as links to court cases) is rarely provided, and would again be useful.

3 September 2014

Negative lists for patent searchers

The free Espacenet patent database contains a vast number of patents and can be searched in a number of  ways. One of its features is the ability to create lists of important patents.

When a search is run, each entry in the results has a blue star on the left hand side. By clicking on the star, it turns red and the same entry is available in the "My patents list" folder above the hit list.

This means that useful patents can be noted for future study. In addition, if another search is run, those already marked in this way appear with a red rather than a blue star to show that they have already been put in the folder.

This is a useful feature and avoids wasted time looking at the same patents again and again in modified searches. Two small suggestions are that it would be useful if additional folders were available, and if they could be named, as a searcher might be dealing with more than one search.

However, this post is really about supplementing this concept of a folder of "positive", wanted, hits with a second folder of unwanted hits -- a negative folder.

Just as you can indicate that you "like" a patent, you should be able to indicate you "dislike" a patent that might seem from the brief details on the hit list to be relevant. In the same way as with the "likes", the searcher can simply disregard the entry on a revised search. There is no need to look at it again, you are reminded that you have already seen it and found it to be irrelevant.

Maybe the red star could be replaced by a "thumbs up" for positive and "thumbs down" for negative documents.

20 August 2014

Everyday miracles TV series

Last night was the first episode of Everyday miracles: the genius of sofas, stockings and scanners on BBC4.

The hour-long programme had Mark Miodownik of the Open University explaining in a very engaging style the stories behind how products we take for granted such as plywood, razors and stockings have their specific properties. It is often a matter of combining two materials to give a product specific desired properties. I particularly loved the example of how nylon could be drawn endlessly from a beaker with two liquids in it, with the material being generated where the two layers meet. The excitement of making something work was, for me, vividly conveyed.

I always say that we can't take any manufactured product for granted -- no matter how mundane it is, someone had to think it up, design it, and work out an efficient and cost-effective way of manufacturing it.

That was the "home" episode" and there will be a further "away" episode (on travel) on the 26th. They can be seen for a limited period by UK residents on the BBC website for Everyday Miracles.

15 August 2014

Patents for chopsticks !

Many novices are amazed at the kinds of things that get patented, or published as patent applications (many do not realise is a subset of the latter). Surely, they think, there is nothing new that can be done in a many trades, that have existed for centuries.

Sometimes new materials will enable something not previously possible. Sometimes, as with chopsticks, there may be a need to train children in the correct use. And there may be a need to enable disabled persons to carry out a function or to use a tool.

An interesting article on the BBC news site, Disability and the Japanese art of mastering chopsticks, covers these topics. A Japanese craftsman, Katsuyuki Miyabi, has adapted chopsticks into pincer like tongs to help those unable to handle normal chopsticks.

What I found interesting in looking at patent documents for chopsticks was that many were teaching aids for the use of chopsticks from Far East countries. There are no fewer than, at the time of writing, 155 patent documents for "chopsticks" plus any of correct*, learn*, teach* or train*, where * indicates truncation.

No doubt others can be added by using classification, for example where the word "chopsticks" is omitted. Espacenet does not permit the creation of a single set of results from two sets of results (which is a pity). Other words could be added as well, such as "practice" or "aid" (Espacenet allows up to ten), although as a general rule in patent searching the more synonyms you add the more "false drops", unwanted hits, you get. It becomes a matter of judgment when to stop adding words which simply provide many unwanted hits while only adding a few extra hits. Another possibility is using the "Cited", "Citing" buttons on the left hand column to pick up references to older or newer documents referred to, or referring to, the known patent (a trick I use a lot with, especially, European and World documents because of the precision of their citations).

One example of the patent specifications that can be found is Chopsticks for training, from Korea, with its main drawing shown below

If nothing else, these results do show that correctly using chopsticks has to be taught to children.

One comment might be made that the results are of limited use as they are in non-Western languages (of the 155, 92 are from China, 28 are from Japan and 16 from Korea -- so only 19 are from other patent offices). Espacenet provides for this. Although there is a delay in loading text, most records will have a "Description" button on the left hand side of the "Bibliographic" format which shows the original text. You can then ask for a translation into a Western language. All free and with no need for registration.

For example, take the Japanese-language Chopsticks for training manner of holding. Click on Description, then on patenttranslate.

There are in fact 6 from the USA, such as Mark Major's Training device for using chopsticks, published in 1998, which has a useful discussion of prior efforts in the field. Its main drawing is shown below.

Even a seemingly simple subject such as this turns out to be quite complicated. After the search, of course, there is the selection of relevant material and the interpretation of their significance.

28 July 2014

The IcyBreeze cooler for outside use

IcyBreeze is a new portable cooler for use outdoors, invented by Clint Donaldson of Oklahoma.

When you are indoors in hot weather it is normal to crank the air conditioning up or at least switch on a fan. However, what about suffering from the heat when you are outside, say at a picnic. Donaldson thought of the idea while watching baseball on a hot day while sitting next to a cooler full of cold drinks. He took an idea normally used to warm houses and applied it instead to the outdoors.

Heat exchangers work by putting outlets for warm but stale air next to inlets for cold, fresh air. The pipes run along each other so that the outgoing air warms the incoming air.

The 34 litre capacity cooler can hold up to 49 cans as well as ice topped up with about 2 litres of water. A battery powers a fan which draws air into the radiator. The air coming out, either by vents or via a hose, makes the air outside up to 20 degrees C cooler. The batteries last for 2.5 hours on a high setting or 6 hours on low.

A World Patent application was published in September 2013 as Ice air conditioner, and its main drawing is shown below.

When I showed patent specifications to clients, I always placed much emphasis on search reports -- the list compiled by patent examiners at patent offices of relevant patents and other published material. The final pages of the Donaldson application contain a report, which lists first US7188489. It works in the same general way -- a portable cooling device using a heat exchanger. The search reports in many European, and the World, patent systems use X and Y indications to show that a particular claim is anticipated (X) or is obvious (Y) in light of the cited document. American search reports, which are on the front of the granted patents, simply cite patents -- often very many -- without giving the X and Y indications.

The IcyBreeze company is pricing models from $279 and plans to begin shipping from August 2014.

Much of the above is taken from the Gizmag article on the IcyBreeze.

22 July 2014

Vigoro, a hybrid sport

The BBC website has a story titled Vigoro: the Edwardian attempt to merge tennis and cricket. It is an entertaining account of a hybrid sport invented by John George Grant, a London commercial traveller, who even took out a trade mark for it. It is rather like playing cricket with a racket. The sport continues to be played in Australia, mainly by women. There is a Wikipedia article on Vigoro. Below is a video showing the sport being played.

I can add that George took out a British patent for the sport by applying in 1901 for his Improved game for affording recreative exercise with bat and ball. One feature that appears to have been dropped was the need to "defend a netted structure" as shown in the patent drawing given below. The batter, incidentally, is described as a "striker".

The inventors are given as John George Grant, commercial traveller, of 36 Savernake Road, Hampstead, and William Saunders Edwards, net manufacturer, of "Thornleigh", Bridport, Dorset.

Grant also had a later patent, GB 1909/02717, for bats, but this while published was not granted protection. Its drawings are given below.

Hybrid games were popular in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. There is for example US442438 by Edward Horsman Jr. of Brooklyn, applied for in 1890, "Parlor tennis". It is for playing tiddlywinks on a miniature tennis court. The delightful drawing is shown below.

20 July 2014

The XHhose®: no more kinks !

I don't normally watch shopping channels, but this morning saw the XHose® on one of those irritating, fast speaking shows that repeatedly tells you the same facts.

It is a garden hose which has no kinks as it work on a new principle. There is an inner hose and the outer hose has expandable material ("non elastic, soft tubular webbing" such as nylon). The pressure of the water in the inner hose causes the outer hose to expand both outwards and lengthways so that it grows to three times its length (says the TV), or six times (says the patents). It is also very light -- just over a pound in weight.

It is the invention of Michael Berardi, who thought of the idea while working out in the gym back home in Florida. While using an "elastic resistance tube", whatever that is, he wondered what would happen if you ran water through it.

In 2011 he filed for what became four US granted patents. Here is a drawing from one of them, US8291941.

Patents have been filed in numerous countries. Blue Gentian LLC is the company that has applied for the US patents and for the US trade mark, but in Europe the owner is F. Mishan and Sons, a New York company.

There is a video available from this site where Berardi is interviewed,which claims that in a year 25 million hoses were sold at a value of $500 million. He began experimenting in his house and in his backyard. In March 2012 the first commercials appeared on "direct response TV", and there was a huge response. Things looked good. Then his wife saw a similar commercial for a very similar product by a large company. She told him not to look, which of course meant he had to look. They were both shocked.

Berardi says that there are imitations by many companies available for sale, and it makes him feel ill and angry. Once his first patent was granted, in October 2012, he began filing patent infringement suits.

British firm Wilson Gunn explains that they successfully took a company, Tristar, to court over an infringement of the UK patent owned by Blue Gentian. The court case can be seen here. It shows that the owner of the European trade mark, Mishan, is working with Blue Gentian, which cleared up for me a small mystery.

Telebrands is being taken to court in the USA.

What I'd have liked to know was how the whole enterprise was financed as, when I had one hours talks with inventors in my British Library job, how to finance and manufacture the product was a big problem to resolve.

Below is an enthusiastic video about the product.

11 July 2014

Statistics for academic institution patents

There is much interest in statistical analysis of patenting trends by academic institutions (where they are an applicant), but there are problems in gathering the data.

Their names vary -- university, college, institute, school, and so on, besides foreign language equivalents. Many terms could mean something else, as in institute. Also, in the UK, there are at least two major players which do not use any of these terms -- Isis Innovation (for Oxford University) and Imperial Innovations (for Imperial College). There is also the complicating fact that some institutions license their innovation to companies such as BTG, sometimes before any patent application is actually published, or between the application's publication and the grant.

These factors make it hard to get true figures.

There is a very useful survey on pages 16-28 of the PCT Yearly Review 2014 of how universities and public sector organizations use the PCT system. The PCT, or Patent Cooperation Treaty, offers a way to simplify, cheapen and delay expenditure when an applicant wishes to secure protection in foreign countries. Instead of applying to many countries for foreign protection within the permitted 12 month period after the initial filing, a single application is made to WIPO in Geneva and a single document is published 18 months after the initial filing (coded as WO among patent documents). A search report listing relevant prior art is either included with the publication (in which case it is coded A1) or follows later (in which case the A3 search report supplements the already published A2).

Only after the A1 or A2 is published do requests come to the applicants from member states of the PCT listed on the application asking if the applicant wants to go ahead with requesting an examination to decide if a patent can be granted. If relevant a translation into an acceptable language is requested. Each country or regional system then decides individually whether or not to accept the application. All this means that in cases where the applicant wants to withdraw because the invention does not seem to be new, or there is a lack of finance, or the market is not perceived to be adequate, the applicant can withdraw and save the cost of translations and other costs.

The survey states that nearly 7.5% of all received applications through the PCT in 2013 were from academic institutions. While traditionally these were largely from America or Europe, Asia was catching up fast.

The survey goes on to say that only 4% of German or Italian academic institutions patent in their own name,12% in France, 20% in The Netherlands, 32% in the UK, and 53% in Spain. The source quoted is from a 2011 paper in Research Policy, 40(1), 148-164, The European university landscape. An abstract and an opportunity to purchase the paper is at the ScienceDirect website.

The survey tends to distinguish between university and public research organizations (PROs) in its figures and pie graphs, giving numerous facts and analysis. The survey says that its use of "filed" really means published -- confusing !

Allowing for the factors mentioned above, in 2013 universities published through the PCT published 9,804 applications, and PROs 4.411. Both were increasing more rapidly than the private sector, especially universities. They are becoming more aware of the potential value of their inventions.

On pages 22-24 there is discussion of co-applicants, where more than one applicant is named on an application. Typically this is when some sort of collaboration occurs, either in the actual research or in financing (or both). During 2011-13 13.7% of published PCT applications had co-applicants. This was 16% for universities and 19% for PROs.

Page 25 gives the top five university applicants from each continent and the continent's figures as a whole for 2005-13. Of the total of 28,153, 11,823 were from North America. 9,065 were from Asia. 6,421 were from Europe, including Isis Innovations and Imperial Innovations, which are known as surrogates for Oxford University and Imperial College. A similar table for PROs is on page 27.

There is also analysis by technical field. It confirmed my impression that academic patenting is biased towards biology and chemistry.

All in all, a very useful survey. All of this comes down to technology transfer as any exploitation of the value of the patents is done by licensing out, selling or spinning off companies. There is much research into this topic, such as the 2013 book by the OECD, Commercalising public research: new trends and strategies.