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]


22 August 2015

Adaptahaus: Grand Designs and a prototype house

I've just been watching an old Grand Designs episode about Alan Dawson's prototype house, Adaptahaus. It was built in Cumbria in a few weeks, back in 2009.

Presumably named for the super-ecological Passivhaus concept from Germany, it is an ingenious way of building efficient houses in high volume. This is what the finished product looked like: it cost about half a million pounds although that included prototype work.

The idea was that the floors would be built on a grid basis to make things quicker and easier -- rather as in Japan rooms are measured by the number of tatami mats needed to cover the floors. Hence wooden spans were noticeable at set intervals in big rooms. Personally I found it a pleasing pattern.

Alan also applied for a patent, in May 2010 (odd if the episode was shown in 2009, as patent applications are made for new concepts, not those disclosed in TV programmes). An international patent application was published as Pre-fabricated building structure. Here's one of the drawings from it.

It was, however, withdrawn in 2012 as a European patent application and doesn't seem to have been granted elsewhere. This was presumably because three patent documents, two French and one Dutch (but in English), were found to have anticipated what Dawson's application was claiming protection for, as listed in this list, which also includes patent documents he was aware of. It shows how hard it is to look for prior art even though Dawson used a patent attorney. The French documents were more than 20 years old and hence could not be used to take legal action against Dawson, while the more recent Dutch application turned out to also be deemed withdrawn as they had not replied in time -- perhaps the list of documents in the European Patent Office correspondence offers hints. This was the sort of thing I was looking up for people all the time when I worked in the British Library.

Adaptahaus has its own website.

11 June 2015

A patent dispute: Eustace Vant and his father in law

It is unusual for patent disputes to involve taking your father in law to court. Here's a British one from World War I.

My source is the Evening Dispatch of the 20 July 1916, as found on the British Newspaper Archive while investigating Surbiton in World War I. Eustace Hazzel Vant had been a Captain in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment who had been invalided out after being thrown from a horse. In 1915 he married Sybil Barton.

The 1911 census shows Sybil as a secretary for a ladies' club, age 26, living on Bond Street with a married typist. Her parents were in a 11 room house called Brooklands, in Lingfield, Surrey. Joshua Barton was 59, a company director of a match factory, living with his wife Annie.

Then on the 20 July 1916 a court case erupted in the King's Bench. 

Vant, of Surbiton, had given his father in law, Joshua Barton of next-door Kingston, Surrey, £100. That was not in dispute: what was uncertain was whether or not it was a loan, as Vant insisted, or an investment, as Barton asserted. 

Vant claimed that half of the sum was to be repaid in November 1915 and the balance in February 1916. He had obtained an overdraft from his bank on which he had to pay interest. 

Barton argued that the money was an investment in a collapsible lifeboat. It was agreed that Vant had tried to get the authorities interested in the invention, including a visit to Liverpool which cost him £4 in expenses (for which he was refunded). 

It sounds as if they did not have a written agreement, which was very foolish of both men, and is in fact close to unbelievable. Barton seems to have been well off and it is strange that he needed £100 from his son in law. 

Although the news account does not say so, it appears that Barton was the actual inventor. A few weeks after the sinking of the Titanic, GB1912/10787, Improvements in collapsable lifeboats, was filed by Joshua Barton of Brooklands, Lingfield, Surrey, director of a public company. A drawing from it is shown below.

Together was an engineer named Charles Hibberd he had been responsible for three earlier patents for cash registers and the like, and also for an earlier lifeboat invention, GB 1898/26927

So what happened ? The newspaper account only gives us the fact that the court case was on-going and not its conclusion. Not surprisingly, the marriage appears to have broken up. Vant remarried in 1918 and became a solicitor in the family firm in Settle, Yorkshire, and died in 1948, 

6 April 2015

Stephen Hawking as a registered trade mark

Stephen Hawking, the eminent Cambridge professor, applied on the 2 March 2015 for his own name as a trade mark in a number of activities.

You can register your name as a trade mark under UK law, or an agent or company can do so on your behalf. Anyone else trying to do so is guilty of "bad faith". I remember someone coming into the British Library saying he wanted to register the names of the Beatles. We checked, and three, I think, had registered their names (there's certainly Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr).

Hawking's applications are UK00003097042 and UK00003097043 which between them cover seven classes of named activities. Having classes means that a trade mark like Swan can be used for a variety of services or product and not just by one company covering all activities.

If registered, they will only be valid for the UK, but the option is available under the Paris Convention to apply for protection in for example the USA or the European Union provided this is done within 6 months. It is still possible to do so beyond six months, but if someone else applies before you do then you lose out.

According to an article on the LiveScience website, Stephen Hawking wants to trade mark his name, by Tanya Lewis, Hawking's intention is to block someone else trying to use his name to sell in the areas listed in the applications.

A few years ago I posted on my old work blog about David Beckham and his wife Victoria as brands, where they and their advisors made very effective use of the intellectual property system, including registering David's signature. Quite a few people have done so. Paul Gascoigne, the retired footballer, applied for a number of UK trade marks, all now "dead" and not valid, and several bearing his signature, as shown below in the list of results.

He still has a valid registration in Europe, EU010619732.

Other celebrities who have registered their name or signature include Olivia Newton-John, Alex Ferguson, Ozzy Osbourne... and also Ed Milliband, who was registered by the Labour Party in 2011.

I imagine that it gets more tricky in law when the name is of someone who is dead, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Michael Jackson, who besides registrations when he was alive such as a 1985 filing, had a filing made months after his death.

The UK jurisdiction has had a number of disputes about the right to use a name, or a trade mark close to a name, such as Albert Einstein, Jane Austen, Elvis Presley and Marlene Dietrich. There is also a European-wide case regarding Pablo Picasso.

Fictional characters and the names of teams or other entities or television programmes can also be involved in disputes over who has the right to use it in commerce. It all comes under the umbrella term of "character merchandising."

It reminds me of a 1920s court case when a man called Albert Hall decided to form an orchestra. In those days it was normal to call an orchestra after the leader, so he called it the Albert Hall Orchestra. He was taken to court by the Royal Albert Hall who claimed that he was trying to give the impression that he was connected with them. The judge, finding for the defendant, said that if you were called Albert Hall it was perfectly reasonable that you would call your orchestra the Albert Hall Orchestra.

However, a man called Henry Harrod who opened a business in New Zealand and called it Harrods was opposed by the famous department store. Apparently people might have thought that there was a connection. The action was dropped when many businesses in the town changed their name similarly, and indeed the town changed its name temporarily to Harrodsville.

28 March 2015

Kingston University "Dragons' Den" final

I've just ended my year as a mentor at Kingston University where teams of business students try to run a microbusiness.

The final evening consisted of each team going before one of several panels of "dragons" with a seven minute presentation followed by seven minutes of questions. Six survived to be recommended for a pitching competition, and they had to present for just three minutes before everyone (including the other students) from which two were nominated for a national competition at Manchester. All this is under the banner of Young Enterprise.

The six to get to the second stage were

Fli, headphones and blindfold for use when flying

Oliver George S.A, limited edition watches

Little Steps, who have an animated film for their Ella product, a sloping cushion for babycare

Speacup who have a cute film, stickers that reveal messages in hot drinks

Beebra, a sports bra

Brace Yourself (my team), which makes athletes with bad backs stand up straighter

The winners were Fli and Beebra. Well done ! I liked the films and role play that some of the finalists used to dramatise the products.

I'm sure the students found it a fantastic journey, if a bit of a rollercoaster. We mentors gave them a hard during the year and on the evening -- it's easier to spot omissions if you're not involved -- but realised that they had to learn about concepts like clearly expressing what their product was about, and covering all the major points in product design, finance, marketing and future plans. I did notice on the evening that many of the teams wasted precious time in making interesting but irrelevant comments.

I certainly learnt from it, and picked up some business information of my own, if only from the other mentors.

20 March 2015

Talk on women inventors at London

On Monday 13 April I will be giving a talk on women inventors in Kingston, a suburb of London, UK. It is part of the programme of the University of the Third Age's Kingston branch.

I have been interested in the topic since, many years ago, I was asked how to identify women inventors in the Victorian era by Deborah Jaffé, later the author of Ingenious women (2003). I remember the moment vividly, and have found the problem of identifying them fascinating ever since.

I will be using many illustrations, mainly from the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, to show the typical (or amusing) patents that women were responsible. As they were denied the opportunity to become engineers, they tended to cover what I call the Three Cs: Clothing, Cooking and Cleaning. I will also talk about many they were in comparison with men, and will feature some leading inventors.

The talk will be at 2 pm at the United Reformed Church, Union Street, above 5 minutes' walk from Kingston railway station. Non-members are charged £2 for admission.

13 March 2015

British patents now available online at British Library

The UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has made available at the British Library, London PDFs of British patent specifications from 1617 to 1899 via a server located there. It is best to visit its Business & IP Centre to see them (and remember a pass is needed for entry to the library).

They are only accessible by asking for specific patent numbers rather than by using e.g. name, address, occupation or title. It is nevertheless a big advance on having to order paper copies and wait for them to be delivered. The entire specification loads very rapidly as a single PDF.

It also means that the paper copies at the IPO will be conserved from damage when requests for copies come in, besides the paper copies at the British Library.

I think it a shame it is not available elsewhere, such as at the patent libraries in the UK, or on the Web for anyone to use. Better still, it would have been good to have it added to the Espacenet database. There are precedents for having patents available only by using the patent number, such as early American and German patents.

At present Espacenet allows British patents to be requested from mid 1893. They can be ordered by patent number or by asking for GB in the publication number field and then by various other fields such as title and name.

11 March 2015

The top brands in 2014: YouGov's BrandIndex

The YouGov BrandIndex 2014 site has a wealth of data on popular brands, widely interpreted, from many countries. I wrote a similar post last year on the 2013 data.

Thousands of interviews are carried out daily to identify the best known brands. The UK brand rankings listed as top ten the following. If they were in the top ten in 2013, that rank is in brackets.

1 Aldi [food retailer] [4]
2 Lidl [food retailer]
3 John Lewis [retailer] [2]
4 BBC iPlayer [broadcasting] [1]
5 Dyson [consumer products manufacturer] [5]
6 Waitrose [food retailer] [8]
7 bbc.co.uk [broadcasting]
8 Netflix [film hire]
9 Marks and Spencer [retailer] [6]
10 MoneySavingExpert.com

We British certainly know how to shop. Only one, Dyson, is actually a manufacturer.

There are the top ten US brand rankings:

1 Amazon [online retailer] [1]
2 YouTube [broadcasting] [6]
3 Netflix [film hire]
4 Subway [takeout food retailer] [3]
5 Samsung [electronics manufacturer]
6 Apple [electronics manufacturer]
7 Google [Internet search services]
8 Lowe's [retailer] [5]
9 Ford [car manufacturer] [2]
10 Cheerios [breakfast cereal] [9]

Apple is back after two years off the index. Why Cheerios, there just as it was last year ? I'd have thought Kellogg's would have more recognition.

The site gives older figures, and even rankings within sectors. A dozen other countries such as Germany, France, China and Japan are also available.

3 March 2015

What's the perfect business plan for a new product ?

I had a meeting with an inventor about her product idea, and in our talking it occurred to me to put down what I consider the key points for a business plan for a new product. Although aimed at private inventors, it makes good sense for small companies too.

As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. The outline given below is a simplification but a good start. I met many inventors in my time at the British Library and most, I'm sorry to say, were unrealistic and naive in their expectations. They did not realise how many experts they need to call on for help (much of which will be charged for). Nor did they think that exploiting an invention would take much time.

1. First is is vital to sort out what you are trying to achieve, and constraints in finance and time. All this may sound obvious, but keeping them in mind both informs and dictates the rest of the plan.

For example, is the prime motive making lots of money, to get an idea into production, to help the world with the invention ? Particularly if it is money, you have to take into account what economists call "opportunity cost" -- if you earn £50,000 p.a. and take a year out to earn £80,000 at a cost of £60,000 (the first figure is unrealistically high, the second is only too realistic), you've lost £30,000 in earnings. I once had a conversation with such a person who was convinced that income was profit.

In considering this, it is vital to think about what finances you have, your attitude to financial risk, and how much you are prepared to lose. Someone with £10,000 in savings will probably have a very different attitude to someone with £500,000. Are you prepared to say, "I will spend a maximum of £20,000" ? Many would say to me "I've gone this far, I can't give up now." That's what gamblers say, too.

Do you want to work long hours ? Chances are good that, regardless of making any money, you will be spending a lot of time on the project trying to get interest.

A timescale is also a good idea. Will you allow say a year, or two years, to get it off the ground ? That's not much time, and how is success measured ? That's your call.

2. The first of the four Ps (the other Ps are at the end of this list):

Product (what is it, why is it a good idea. Does it have a USP (Unique Selling Proposition) ?  Do people really need it, can they afford it ? Is the way it works important ? Its looks ? Both ? Does the product need to observe laws and regulations on safety, or to keep to technical standards ?) If you are not familiar with the industry, learn about it.

3. You should put together a SWOT analysis of your product and also of yourself. SWOT is a useful tool: it stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. In my one hour meetings with inventors when I worked at the British Library quite a few presented SWOT analyses of their product, but none offered a SWOT of themselves. Again and again they had the idea but no finance, no knowledge of accountancy or marketing or engineering... yet did not see any problem. Having weaknesses such as these won't necessarily kill the idea, but they make it harder for the inventor to succeed. My own preference was inventors who at least knew about engineering, and ideally worked with someone who knew about accountancy and/ or marketing.

In some areas, a PEST analysis of the product is also a good idea. It stands for Politics, Economics, Social, Technological. Think, say, of apps to summon cheap taxis. Perhaps the landscape has changed to suggest changes in products or processes.

4. Is it patentable ? A hugely complicated subject, and a patent attorney should be consulted. Many will offer an initial free half hour -- if so, make sure you ask questions like what will you do for me and how much do you charge for what. If it's not patentable then the odds against it being a success rise a lot. Do not reveal the idea except in confidence until you've filed for a patent, and if possible spell out the advantages instead of how it works. For example, you could say you have a new method of closing garments that operates without a zipper and which is easy for all to use.

5. Carry out a patent search, remembering that just because you thought of it doesn't mean it's not been thought of by someone before (I met someone who said he had written an idea down and locked the paper inside his desk, and was furious when he saw the product for sale a few years later. Clearly, he said, someone had burgled him). You can try doing a search online but it's better to employ an expert or at least ask someone at a public patent collection to advise you. Be prepared to take days searching and analysing the results (you will probably need help on this).

A useful starting point, particularly good for cheap products, is Google Shopping which can be used to rank by price products available through websites.

If'it turns out that the idea is protected in the country you want to sell in, give up. If not protected but it's out there already, that's a big strike against it. It greatly adds to the odds against success as competitors are either already out there or can easily compete.

6. What is your intellectual property (IP) strategy -- e.g. Europe and USA ? Patent, trade mark ? Add more countries if you like but remember that you'll need to translate the patent specification into the local languages, and probably advertising, brochures, etc. into them as well -- do you want to spend that ?

7. Make a working prototype. I can't remember how many times people would tell me that no they knew nothing about the industry, but yes, "in theory" the product would do the job. No need, they thought, to go to the trouble of making a working prototype to persuade a company to take them on. The problem is that they will immediately be shown the door.

If the prototype is to be shown at say a trade show or on Dragons' Den it needs to look good as well as working properly. Some companies offer to make prototypes and sometimes to help improve the product.

8. Should you sell, license, manufacture yourself ?

Some want to sell the idea and just collect some money. Usually in my experience some people are unrealistic in their expectations, like the man who thought of the idea of handheld flippers and didn't realise that the idea already existed. All he had was the general idea, not a specific design (this was pre Internet days).

Others like the idea of licensing it to a manufacturer, to keep some control of the product. This is a very complicated subject in itself, and is fraught with dangers (such as many companies refusing to sign non-disclosure agreements). 4% of the manufacturer's (not retailer's price) is usually the best the inventor can hope to be paid. Contract law is vital here.

Manufacturing the product yourself can be the most lucrative but also exposes the inventors to the most financial risk, and means they must spend a huge amount of time running all the aspects of the business. Rather than your own factory, it probably means sorting out an agreement with a supplier to make the product. This is very common -- it's Apple's method, for example.

9. Do you need outside finance ? Work out careful estimates, and decide how much you need. You may think crowdfunding sites are a good idea, or need business angels.

The remaining three Ps:

10. Price (how much does it cost to make, what retail price is anticipated, is it a premium product with high prices but low sales, and remember that often a retail markup is three to four times the manufacturer's price. It may cost too much for the market. Financial projections are a good idea)

11. Place (where to sell it -- online, through shops, etc. You should know by now the answer)

12. Promotion (which I've put last as the Place determines the publicity. Who is the ideal customer, what to call it, how to advertise it -- is social media vital, for example ? Despite what some people told me, not everyone will love your product, so market research to gather information is important)

Finally there should be an executive summary, which is a sober and realistic summing up of the 4 Ps. It's written last but is read first by a potential buyer or investor, and should be enough to interest them.

It may help to think through in detail what needs to happen to get from the idea to the product being in the hands of the consumer. There will be lots of steps, although not all have to be done by you. It may also help to imagine yourself in the mind of a manufacturer or supplier you might want to approach, as they want to make money too. Getting others to read the draft plan will probably help, too, especially if they have relevant skills. And don't forget to quantify as much as possible, for (realistic) figures will be your friend.

In the event only you can decide on what to do. To gather information and advice, it's a good idea to talk to local public libraries that deal in patents, join an inventor's club, and attending events aimed at business such as at the British Library's Business and IP Centre.

For Europe, see a list of patent libraries

For the USA, see a list of patent libraries

26 February 2015

Omni Business Hour on Kingston Green Radio

When I worked for the British Library I often spoke on the radio about intellectual property (IP).

I'm doing so again on the 18 March on the Omni Business Hour on Kingston Green Radio here in the London borough of Kingston, where I now live.

I was invited by John Gower, who will be interviewing me. I met him as a fellow mentor in the Young Enterprise programme at Kingston University. I can honestly say I've never met a more enthusiastic person when it comes to talking, breathing and living business. We've never had a conversation on anything else !

While John knows a huge amount about business, intellectual property was one area where he was less knowledgeable. He heard me explaining about patents and trade marks to his team at the university's Enterprise in Action module, where the students run a real if small business and see what the real world is all about (The product was BeeBra, which won a prize in the Bright Ideas Final). So I was invited onto his monthly show.

For an hour I'll be quizzed by John about what intellectual property is about and why it's important. Listeners can call in as well. I've also chosen four clips of music.

I'd be delighted if you can listen in -- IP is a tough subject for businesses, as so many don't understand it properly. It will be broadcast on Wednesday 18 March between 3 and 4, UK time, and you can listen in on this website.

John Gower's Omni Facebook website is here, while the Omni Facebook page for Kingston businesses is here.

I love the fact that it's going out live, as that gives a real buzz, and a hour gives me a chance to explain some key concepts to protecting creativity and getting a competitive advantage. I'm looking forward to it !

24 February 2015

Teaching intellectual property at school

Recently I ran a class teaching intellectual property to high school students at the American School in London.

I've done this several times now at the same school for their Technology and culture elective course, which is taught by Mariam Mathew. I hadn't been in a school since 1972, and it did feel strange at first !

For the first time I was the teacher, with a class plan covering what I wanted the twelve students to learn. I was wielding the chalk, only there wasn't a piece of chalk in sight. Apple® equipment was everywhere, including in front of them (the school uses that platform exclusively), and the students were clustered around a long table rather than in the rows of desks I was used to. The atmosphere was relaxed and talkative rather than formal.

There was also a readiness to have informal learning in groups, where conclusions were given by a spokesperson. I don't remember that ever happening at the schools I atteneded, yet these are perfectly normal in everyday life, especially work. Here's a photo of the class.

The aim of the course is to bring out the interaction between technology such as software and people -- it is easy to take it all for granted. When I was at school computers were never mentioned, while now schools would be considered failures if they were not tightly integrated into everything.

My 75 minute class explained the basics of intellectual property -- patents for function, designs for looks, trade marks for branding products or services, and copyright for authorship -- and I passed around a coffee cup sleeve and lid to show how such mundane objects contained these elements. One had the patent number on it of Beverage container holder, as illustrated below -- the classic sleeve with a green logo which wraps round Starbuck® coffee cups. It covers the machinery for making the sleeves.

I also mentioned software a lot. The two most popular posts on my blog are about Snapchat® and WhatsApp, which are patented apps. I've never used them, but when I asked if anyone used them nearly every hand shot up. Like it or not, software is already part of young people's lives even if they don't stop to think about how they are thought of, made available and protected as concepts. The mind boogles at what might be happening in thirty years' time.

I set the class the task of identifying as many features in Apple as they could think of and presenting their results, and finished by briefly demonstrating how to use Espacenet. I then let them loose to have a go on the database themselves.I think they enjoyed that most of all ! It set their imaginations free to look for anything that interested them, although a few were dazed at the prospect and couldn;t think of anything until I prompted them.

Of course, a 75 minute class could only be a taster of what a complex subject like this is about. I found the experience stimulating and fun, and would be happy to run similar classes at schools or colleges in the London area.