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]


30 April 2014

Open Innovation: 3 companies welcoming inventors

Open innovation is the concept that invention isn't just carried out by a company's staff, but also includes accepting ideas from outside (as well as selling technology out). After all, as Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems has pointed out, most of the smartest people will always work for someone else. This is called Joy' Law.

Many private inventors find it difficult contacting companies with their ideas. Will they be made welcome, or will there be a brush-off, polite or not ? This post lists three large companies which are noted for welcoming ideas from outside. All three are strong in household products.

Procter and Gamble has its Connect + Develop programme.

Unilever has its Open Innovation portal.

Reckittt & Benckiser has its RB-Idealink.

One problem with contacting a very large company, though, is that they are likely to expect a new idea to be a big product line. If the likely turnover is a few million annually it will add little to their massive turnover, so such ideas are best taken to a smaller company.

28 April 2014

Designs of the Year 2014: my visit

I have now visited the Design Museum's exhibition Designs of the Year 2014 and found it very absorbing. It is on until the 25 August.

There are 76 exhibits in seven areas: architecture., digital, fashion., furniture, graphics, product and transport. I found the mixture very stimulating. Here are a couple of photos from it.

The official website for Designs of the Year 2014 (as opposed to the exhibition) lists the 76 and shows the numbers of votes for each. I didn't vote as I couldn't decide between such different products and solutions in so many different areas.

I seem to find the worlds of wheelchairs, bicycles and highly efficient cars very interesting, as my other photos are in those areas.

Below is the Chair 4 Life by the Renfrew Group.

Below is the IFmove bicycle by Pacific Cycles, which claims to be more than just a folding bicycle.

And there is the ME.WE concept car by Toyota, designed to be a light electric car for use in urban areas. I await with great anticipation the arrival in large numbers of electric cars -- they will be quiet for a start, and not emit lots of poisonous fumes. Liberate the city !

I also saw at the same venue the exhibition Hello, my name is Paul Smith. I was vaguely aware that Smith was a fashion designer but knew nothing more. It seems he is also involved in design work generally, and I loved his energetic curiosity -- he takes a camera and notebook everywhere, and absorbs ideas and influences like a sponge. I admit to being surprised by my own enthusiasm.

Each shop is individually designed and they are listed on the Paul Smith company website, and I will start visiting the 11 London shops. Below are a couple of photos I took at the exhibition.

22 April 2014

Make me a millionaire inventor

The Sky Vision TV series Make me a millionaire inventor has hit the UK screens, 18 months after my modest involvement with it. I remember the filming at the British Library (as seen in the opening footage, going along the shelves) and making suggestions on how to identify likely patents.

It's a reality show where each week two engineers, Shini Somara and Jem Stansfield, identify two patents by British private inventors where the products are not available in the shops. They are called on and asked if they want help with getting the invention commercialised. I am sure I'm not the only person who finds shows about getting a possible product to market very good viewing.

I saw it for the first time last Sunday, and assume it is typical of the series. The first inventor was Stephen Britt. Instead of an electric bicycle to assist the cyclist, only the pedal (under the foot) is powered, using batteries. 30% of the power needed to cycle is provided by it. Stansfield certainly seemed to enjoy cycling with it: the harder he cycled, the more he claimed to enjoy it. Britt's British patent was published in 2011 as Auxiliary drive for a cycle.

The other inventor was Marc Spinoza. He had thought of the Fin Band, and had registered the trade mark for it. His British patent, Buoyancy and rescue device, was published in 2010.

Meant for small children, this buoyancy aid has two large fins attached by a sleeve which clings to the skin. Only an adult can get it off the child, and hence it adds safety to the swimmer. Children splashing about in the pool seemed quite happy using it.

Both inventors were very pleased with the offered help. Britt had even given up his job while trying to get it off the ground, although his family apparently didn't mind. Thousands had been spent on the projects. Shrewd comments were made by separate panels interviewing the inventors, especially about the need to get the costs down. Many inventors do not realise that this is vital for many products. The electric pedal would sell for £350, Britt estimated, and you saw potential investors from the retail trade wince. The buoyancy aid cost £5 to make, and would sell for perhaps £20 in the shops, far more than competing products.

In the end, both inventors were helped by an investor, though one decided to go it alone in the end.

The show made it clear that many skills are needed to become a successful inventor-entrepreneur, including memorising crucial facts and having a viable business plan.

What the show didn't mention was the need to carry out research -- ironically, what you see the presenters doing at the start of the programme. Inventors need to check if an idea is new (otherwise you can't patent it), and what sort of market there is out there, including competitors (otherwise you look foolish when asked questions). Both can be done at the British Library's Business & IP Centre or at one of the UK's Patlib libraries. The problems involved in getting a patent was also not mentioned.

To be fair, a lot of useful ground was covered and it all made good viewing. Any inventors, and many entrepreneurs, can learn from the programmes.

My own small part ended up on the editing room floor. I had been an assistant to the presenters, bringing them volumes of patents to look at (which is actually done now on a screen, like so many things). My name was, however, mentioned in the closing credits, which was nice.

In the UK it's on Pick (Freeview 11) at 7 pm every Sunday.

20 April 2014

Youngest inventor ever ?

Kiowa Kavovit was on the US show Shark Tank on the 14 March, making a pitch for financial backing for a paint-on bandage. It was called BooBoo Goo. I understand that she secured backing on condition that a patent was applied for. There is a website for the product.

We in the UK also have our young inventors. Samuel Houghton was three when he thought of a double-headed broom, as explained by him in a video compiled for the British Library exhibition Inventing the 21st Century which I curated, back in 2010. I'll admit that I chose him for the cuteness factor, and to show that the young often have very imaginative ideas.

Samuel was lucky enough to be the son of a patent attorney. Dad apparently thought that it would be a useful educational exercise to apply for a British patent (but with no thought of enforcing it). Notice in my list below how the titles, besides the patent claims, are often "broad yet precise" in how they word the concept.

Samuel secured a patent both for this and for a later idea.

Improved broom (but called "Sweeping device with two heads" in a preliminary publication), applied for in 2006, is shown below.

I liked the comment in the granted patent that he "observed that my daddy was wasting time swapping between brushes" when sweeping small or larger fragments. His double-headed broom sweeps both kinds, the front head the big pieces, the back head the smaller ones.

In 2008 there was his Balloon bursting apparatus.

His younger brother Benjamin was responsible in 2008 for Plug for a wash-basin, as illustrated below.

There is one patent in the names of both boys, applied for in 2008. This was Improved handle (at a preliminary stage, titled "Shock-absorbing handle for manual tool"), as illustrated below:

Samuel Houghton has his own Wikipedia article which says "he is thought to be the youngest person to have been granted a patent for their invention", at age 5, though I wonder if Benjamin was younger still. One problem is that the age of invention, applying for and securing a patent are likely to be different and it is often unclear what age applies to what stage when claims are made.

The Guardian has an interview with Samuel Houghton from 2008.

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 bissected 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.