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]


11 April 2014

Historical eye baths book

When I worked at the British Library it was a pleasure to help those researching historical artefacts so that they could identify old patents and trade marks.

I've just seen a book that came out of such research. It is Eye baths: an illustrated survey, by George Sturrock, who has been researching the field for thirty years. It was published in 2012.

It is arranged alphabetically by manufacturer and contains numerous colour illustrations of eye baths and packaging. Many were made of porcelain, it seems. There is a bibliography, and a table on page 214 of 36 patents arranged by applicant.

I'd have liked to have seen the "date" listed in this table explained -- was it date of application, or date of grant ? Both can seem important, and the former determines the length of the British patent term, and the latter the length of the US term. Also, I think there were patents mentioned in passing in the text which did not appear in the table and which were simply called a patent without giving the patent number, and I'd have also liked to have seen a full citation when the year of registration of trade marks was mentioned (which is frequently). These are minor quibbles. Once a librarian always a librarian, I am sorry to say.

I often used to see Mr Sturrock working away in the reading room on patents or trade marks. The result is truly a labour of love.

Other researchers on historical inventions that I recall were on croquet and revolving doors (both of which resulted in detailed books), ticket punchers, firearms, Indian topis [solar hats], and rat traps. It was a pleasure giving what help I could to all of them. It does seem to be men rather than women who get obsessed with a topic in this way.

One comment that George made that sounded useful was saying that eBay was a very good source of information, as sellers often provided good photos and patent or trade mark information.

7 April 2014

Search Matters 2014: training at EPO

I attended the Search Matters 2014 conference at The Hague last week, where I gave the keynote speech.

Search Matters is an annual two-day meeting where the European Patent Office (EPO) provide talks and workshops to help patent professionals learn about patent searching tools, including changes in provision. I'd never been before, and it was certainly intensive. About 120 attended, and I went to six workshops on topics such as accessing Chinese and Korean patent information, and citation searching to assist in identifying relevant material. On the whole, the emphasis was on finding older patents that might invalidate a patent application -- what is called "prior art."

I think everyone else providing the talks and workshops were EPO staff, but I had been asked to give the keynote speech. I was asked to choose any relevant topic and to make it entertaining and informative. The title was Do you know English ? The challenge of the English language for searchers, and was a light-hearted review of common problems that we all face, including native English speakers.

These included English spelling; the numerous synonyms that the language has; verbs that are also nouns; US versus British spelling or wording; establishing terminology such as wording for cars and aircraft; and compound nouns, where there can be uncertainty over whether a word is spelt as one word or as two.

For example, I would never think of spelling "ballpoint" as "ball point", yet in the relevant patent class for ballpoint pens, B43K7/00, the number of title hits on the free Espacenet database was:

ball point(s)......................603

Within the same class, there were other wordings for the basic idea of a such a writing instrument:

writing instrument(s).........323
writing implement(s).........122
writing device(s).................11

"Pen" would of course have overlapped with other wordings. The implication is, of course, use all possible variants.

I told a few jokes about machine translations. The English saying "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" get translated into Russian and back again and becomes "The vodka is great but the meat is lousy", and the French saying "Voici l'Anglais avec son sangfroid habituel" becomes "Here comes the Englishman with his usual bloody cold". I had scoffed in 1988 at the idea of machine translations at a meeting, but happily admit that they are now very useful and are of course much used. For patents, the Patenttranslate function on Espacenet is very valuable for translating ASCII text. Unlike other translation tools, it incorporates numerous technical wordings.

There is also Patentese, the dialect used by patent attorneys to draft "broad yet precise" patent claims. I gave the example of the weird wording in John Keogh's Circular transportation facilitation device, better known as a wheel. Keogh was a patent attorney who wanted to make fun of the new Australian innovation patent, which was not checked for novelty. I also gave the (fictitious ?) example of the patent attorney who, confronted by an optimist saying that a glass was half full, and a pessimist saying it was half empty, replied that it was an open-ended cylinder horizontally dissected by liquid H2O.

As a paperless conference, the presentations were put on a USB which was given to the participants. I will certainly keep it for review as it was hard to keep track of all the information. I learnt about new things, and enjoyed networking with the participants. I appreciated being invited to contribute to the conference, and the pleasant hospitality offered. I also enjoyed staying at Delft, and for the first time in my life visited Rotterdam, from which my ancestor migrated to England in 1875.

The website promises to publish the lectures and the larger workshops as e-learning modules by mid-May.

I would encourage those professionals who feel the need to strengthen their skills in patenting searching to attend next year's workshop.

5 April 2014

Google's trade mark application for "Glass"

Google has been trying to get a trade mark for the word "Glass", I hear. In July 2013 they applied for it for...

Computer software for setting up, configuring, and controlling wearable computer hardware; wearable computer hardware; wearable computer peripherals

...all in Class 9. You register for one or more classes of goods or services, not for everything. It was in a stylised fount, as shown below.

It was rejected, and Google appealed in a letter over 1,928 pages long, though much of that was copies of news articles. The letter can be read by selecting the "20 March 2014 Paper correspondence incoming" (and how ! at that size) on the official electronic file page for Google's "Glass" application. That, in turn, I found by finding the application itself in the very valuable (and free) tmquest database by Minesoft, which is easy to use. I asked for Glass as a trade mark and Google as owner, and clicked on "Legal status" at the top of the full entry. There is a tab for "Documents".

Anyone with the time can read the full file, but briefly the US Patent and Trademark Office argued that the mark was descriptive. The reply was that the "glass" is actually titanium and plastic, so it wasn't. My own thoughts are that using a common noun by itself is not distinctive enough -- how short can a trade mark be ? A German who tried to register an exclamation mark apparently found that it needed to be somewhat longer.

I learnt about the application in today's Daily Telegraph, and what made me choke in my cornflakes was the headline: "Google can't patent "Glass" whatever font they write in, says US officials". They are not actually trying to patent the word, they are trying to register a trade mark for it. In the UK at least (I think they are more savvy in the USA) many journalists think the words used in intellectual property, such as patent, trade mark and copyright, are interchangeable. These words are not: they are used, respectively, for a technical invention; words or logos for goods of services; and for literary, artistic or musical creation. I remember once a journalist phoning me to get, he said, the right wording on an invention story. I dictated to him the wording he should use, but at some point this was altered so that the printed story didn't make any sense. Oh well, I had tried (and at least I was not credited as the source).

Google had already applied, in September 2012, to register Google Glass. This has been opposed and is awaiting a hearing at the office's Trademark Trial and Appeal Board [the US uses the spelling trademark, the UK trade mark]. This is stated in the electronic file page for the "Google Glass" application. Incidentally, the Daily Telegraph article said "the company has already trademarked the term "Google Glass"", but this is not true.

Many people think that a search on Google will find them everything hidden away on the Web, but in this case, as in many others, expert help is needed to get at the facts.

26 March 2014

The Ryno self-balancing unicycle

Gizmag has an article on the new Ryno self-balancing unicycle which has apparently been a big hit on the Web (although I missed it). It will soon be shipping, at a price of $5250.

The story includes an interview with Chris Hoffmann, the inventor, who attributes the idea to his then 13-year old daughter, Lauren's, question. She had seen a one-wheeled motorcycle on a video, and drew a sketch of what she had in mind. Why weren't they around ? She reminded Dad that he was an engineer.

Hoffmann began to work on the idea, incorporating a gyroscope to maintain balance for the vehicle. When the Segway(R) came out gyroscopes cost $500, now they are just $10. Bringing the costs down was crucial. Seven years on, he is almost there with the product launch at the Ryno company website. By the way, their application for Ryno as a US trade mark was made in August 2013 and is pending registration.

I have found two patent applications by Christopher Hoffmann.

In August 2012 there was published a US patent application by Hoffmann and Anthony Ozrelic, Electric-powered self-balancing unicycle with steering linkage between handlebars and wheel forks. Below is one of its drawings.

The crucial patent document, though, is one that was published as both a US patent application and as a "World Patent" application on the 27 February 2014, the Electric-powered self-balancing unicycle. It was made by the same two men on behalf of Ryno Motors of Beaverton, Oregon. It is an A2 document, meaning that it is without a search report at the end listing prior art that might invalidate the concept. That might be published weeks, months or even a year or two from now, as an A3 on Espacenet's bibliographic entry for that invention.

There are 11 drawing pages -- here are three of them, which are full of interest.

I look forward to seeing the Ryno racing past me on the road. Being electric, it appears to be rather silent in comparison with normal motorcycles. I regard that as a Good Thing.

25 March 2014

Design Museum exhibition: Designs of the year

London's Design Museum has an exhibition of 76 Designs of the Year across the world, which is on until 25 August. It opens tomorrow (26 March).

There is a video about the exhibition on the BBC website. Should be good -- and don't forget the many graduate shows on universities, mainly in late June, which are both free and great fun -- I've enjoyed chatting to the designers themselves.

21 March 2014

Inventions invited ! Project Hatchling

British company Turtle Mat is launching an invitation, open to British residents, to submit inventions for possible commercialisation by them at Project Hatchling. The prize is a negotiated royalty agreement for the successful invention. There is no charge to enter.

Traditionally it is very hard for outsiders to submit their inventions to companies. They are often ignored or treated in a rather offhand fashion. On the competition page, below the video, are images of previous winners. It looks like household products have a good chance, as Turtle Mat is noted for -- surprise -- washable mats, as their website shows.

I have noticed a growing tendency by (some) companies to consider seriously ideas from outside their company. As the head of Procter and Gamble pointed out, most of the world's engineers do not work for his company, so they were missing out on a lot of ideas. They now aim for half of their innovations to be sourced from outside the company.

Submissions are open until the 30 April, and while applications should be made from the 1 April it is possible to preregister.

20 March 2014

Google's Android Wear wristwatch

Gizmag has a story, Google unveils the Android Wear platform: Google Now on your wrist. There is a Google official blog post from the 18 March about their new smart watch, Android Wear. It asks for apps to be developed for the watch. Here's one of that post's two videos, showing individuals enjoying using the watch to get information.

So it's not just Google Glass (which I posted about in May 2013). Others have mentioned the patents, but I've done my own research to identify four relevant patents owned by Google.

First there was an Israeli invention, by Modu, which dates as far back as 2005. In 2011 Google purchased their patent portfolio for $4.9 million, which explains why the owner of the rights is given as Google in their Wireless telecommunication device and uses thereof.

The next three are all by inventors Gossweiler and Miller. In 2011 there was applied for what was granted, in October 2012, Smart watch including flip-up display. Here are a couple of its drawings.

Next to be granted US protection, in June 2013, is Smart-watch with user interface features. Here is its main drawing.

Then in January 2014, but originally applied for in 2008, is Gesture-based small device input. The patent makes interesting reading with its talk of a virtual mouse pad. Below is its main drawing.

And here is another drawing from the same.

Time will tell (excuse the pun) on how well this device will sell.

13 March 2014

The Brodie military helmet

According to Web sources, the standard British and American helmet in World War I was invented by John Leopold Brodie, and was patented in 1915. He was a London-based engineer. It had been found that shell splinters rather than bullets were the main danger to soldiers' heads, and the design was meant to protect them from splinters (and hence from above).

However, the three British Brodie patents for helmets do not look anything like the classic flattish helmet with a broad brim. These vary somewhat, but tend to look like the one illustrated below.

The 1915 patent, GB 1915/11803, illustrated below, was applied for in August 1915. There was also US 1251959 for the same invention. See how much higher the dome is in the drawings. Also, the brim is at a greater angle of slope.

There was a lining made of "American cloth" which was integral to the helmet. An air gap between the lining and the helmet kept the head cool in summer while preventing frostbite in winter. It also prevented rusting; kept the helmet firmly on the head; and prevented pressure on any point on the head, which could cause headaches. Also in the patent, Brodie suggested that it be painted in rainbow colours so as to make it "invisible to the enemy", and early issues were indeed painted, apparently.

So why was it so different ? I can only speculate that a need to save metal meant that the flatter shape was adopted, assuming that the Brodie attribution is correct. It was first used in any numbers in July 1916.

There is a Wikipedia article on the Brodie helmet. To save time designing a new helmet, sources say, the US Army adopted a slightly modified form of the Brodie helmet for its soldiers.

9 March 2014

Google Maps and a patent challenge

Microsoft have lost the first round in a fight over software used in Google Maps to locate businesses etc. on the maps. A patent explains a method of storing map data on a server, and attaching it to other data, and making it accessible by client devices.

They own a European patent, Computer system for identifying local resources and method therefor, which dates back to 1995 when Sean Phelan of London, UK filed a World Patent application. There is also an American patent for the technology, US 6240360. Below is an image from the patent specification.

The European patent in question is really a bundle of national patents. Following grant by the European Patent Office in Munich, there is an opposition period, when the patent, covering all EU countries, can be challenged in a single legal procedure. If it survives that, or is not challenged, it can only be stopped by attacking the patent in each national court. That would mean, if successful, that the patent would fail for that country (only). In this instance, the attack was in Germany.

Michael Filtz reported, 5 March, on the case in the German Federal Court, where it was ruled that Google and Motorola had not infringed the patent, as that was found invalid for lack of inventive step. His post is titled Microsoft loses mapping patent tussle in German fight with Google and Motorola.

Microsoft has already said it will appeal. The patent in question, EP845124, is due to expire in August 2016 anyway, 20 years after application at the Munich office, as that is the normal maximum term.

There is an interesting article on Sean Phelan's career.

6 March 2014

Patently obvious ? Genes and patents

A couple of nights ago I attended "Patently obvious ?", a discussion on genes and patents at the British Library, as mentioned in an earlier post. It was part of the TalkScience series. About 100 attended, and it was clear that most there were aged 18 to 25 or so, which was encouraging.

The format was a common one at the British Library. Three speakers and a moderator spoke and then there was plenty of time for questions to be asked. When I worked at the British Library, I mostly worked with mechanical inventions, and I only have a Biology O level, so I must confess that some of it went over my head.

The basic question was whether patents helped or hindered biomedicine research. Is something that's already there, such as a gene, patentable, or it just a discovery.

Professor Alan Ashworth, Chief Executive of the Institute of Cancer Research, spoke first and said that patents were a hinderance. Dr Nick Bourne of Cardiff University, who is involved with technology transfer, and Dr Berwyn Clarke, who founded a biomarker company. Both were in favour of patents. The moderator was Professor Jackie Hunter, Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

My summary of the arguments, including my own thoughts, are as follows. I may have somewhat distorted the arguments made, in which case I apologise in advance.

For patents, they encourage research by offering the possibility of financial gain. Private firms otherwise wouldn't get involved. Venture capitalists will ask, what IP do you have, and if there is no IP they will not invest. Hence even if academia does the research nobody spends the money to exploit a discovery.

My additional thoughts are that if we don't use patents to make money out of ideas, other countries will (provided there's IP and hence a monopoly); and that patent documents must be published, in a structured way, on databases, providing access to the world. Much research in academia is probably kept secret for a long time -- or eked out in occasional academic papers ?

Against patents, most genes are identified for their significance by academia, yet it apparently typically costs $4000 to "look at" a gene. I think that this is a reference to biomarker diagnostic kits, where a researcher is enabled to quickly go to a gene he or she wishes to study. Professor Ashworth did say that pharmaceutical research was so costly that patent protection, to protect the investment, was crucial.

Someone in the audience asked if the public sector could undertake much of the basic research to provide a social good. The problem is funding it, as there would be huge financial risk if there were attempts to commercialise it. If no such attempts, again would others step in ? There was also the argument that you can't publish in journals until you've filed a patent. Technology transfer offices apparently often ask that more work is done to establish good, wide patent claims before filing, hence a delay.

There were a number of mentions of the Myriad decision by the US Supreme Court, which ruled, in AMP v Myriad Genetics, in June 2013, that key patent claims were not patentable. The text is here. A commentary , from the Wikipedia web site, which cites and (in the footnotes) links to the patents, is available. There is also for example a post in the Genomics Law Report blog, is called Myriad, finally: Supreme Court surprises by not surprising.

An interesting comment was that a US study suggests that only 1 in 1000 patents by universities generate significant income. I am not sure if that is an argument for or against them ! Other comments were a request for a compulsory database of failed clinical trials (yes, it's odd how academic papers so often state that a result was what had been expected), and compulsory licensing (at a low rate ?) of patented, commercialised work.

I simply didn't have time to scribble down all the interesting comments made. I'd have liked to have looked up citations to some of the studies mentioned in passing.

So, who won ? There was no vote on the issue. I can see both points of view, and the need to attract money to spend on developing biological products through patent protection is to me a strong argument.