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]


28 May 2014

Amazon and patents

I've just finished reading Brad Stone's book The everything store: Jeff Bezos and the age of Amazon. If you are interested in how businesses are created and change, and the Web, then this is the book for you.

It emphasized for me how Amazon is so good at grinding costs down in every conceivable way, and deliberately offering promotions which lose it money, in order to build up market share. This is a very Japanese idea, by the way, increasing market share (although when Japanese banks tried applying it to loans they soon built up big books of risky loans). Nice for customers -- not so good for others trying to compete. What will happen if Amazon becomes the last one standing as a retailer ?

Amazon has vast numbers of patents. The company has over 1600 granted US patents, with 221 so far this year -- more than one a day. Some are about the details of how the stock is handled at the fulfilment centres (warehouses), such as Filling an order at an inventory pier, illustrated below, and

Replenishing a retail facility, illustrated below.

The book also talks of the way multiple vendors would be offering items on the Amazon website -- so that the company makes a percentage on vendors who are shipping the items themselves. Out of curiosity, I made a list of the 38 US patents by Amazon which had the word "multiple", and it's quite a mixture, with many involving software algorithms. As Stone says, Amazon is in many ways more a technology company than a retailer.

I would have liked it if Stone had gone into more details about the company's turnover, profits and taxes. Especially its arrangements and efforts to avoid paying sales tax in American states, and tax in European countries, channelling income through low-tax Luxembourg. Also more on compensation for the fulfilment centre workers.

I have only bought books from Amazon -- and now try to avoid doing so if possible.

13 May 2014

The Spanish-American War in US design patents

American design patents can be a valuable source of images for studying social history, but are little used. Here is an example: reactions to the Spanish-American War. They may not be typical, of course, as the number is small. Nor does the issuing of a design patent mean that the item was actually manufactured.

There is no doubt that there are numerous souvenir, commemorative or patriotic pins, badges, etc. in the American design patents, and how to find them is explained at the end of this post. The British registered designs, the same sort of right for the look of a design, are not online for historical material, and do not cover such subjects. They also lack explanatory text which could be searched in this way.

The background to the Spanish-American War is that Cuba, a Spanish colony, was fighting a war for independence from Spain. The American battleship Maine was moored in Havana harbour when, on the 15 February 1898, she blew up with the tragic loss of 266 sailors. Sabotage, screamed many American newspapers (although the evidence is inconclusive), which whipped up patriotic enthusiasm which led to war being declared (by the Spanish) in April 1898. The fighting was mainly in Cuba and the Philippines, and ended swiftly, in August 1898.

What follows is a list of the design patents that I have identified as being relevant, in order of being filed at the US Patent Office. Some of the images are attractive; others are dull.

In fact before the war those wishing to express pro-Cuban sympathies were assisted by Henry Caldwell of Hartwell, OH with his "Badge", D27621, filed 30 January 1897. It shows the Cuban colours and is meant to "indicate sympathy with the cause of Cuba", says the patent.

On the 2 April 1898 Willis Hart of Unionville, CT filed for D28629, "Spoon". It shows the Maine and its commander, Captain Charles Sigsbee.

On the 25 April 1898 Julius Becker of New York City filed for D28787, "Pipe", in the appearance of the Maine.

On the 26 May 1898 Charles Bailey of Cromwell, CT filed for D29049, "Toy bank". Again in the guise of the Maine. Bailey had numerous Design Patents to his name.

On the 16 June 1898 William Smith of Philadelphia, PA filed for "Woven fabric", again showing the Maine.

On the 18 June 1898 Amos Standing of St Louis, MO filed for "Game device". I strongly suspect that this is for a game based on the Battle of Manila Bay on the 1 May 1898, when Commodore Dewey's ships defeated the Spanish.

On the 28 August 1898 John Croskey of Dunkirk, IN filed for D29364, "Pitcher". The text explains that it commemorates the Battle of Manila, artillery, the flags of Cuba and the USA, and "the United States Admiral".

On the 28 September 1898 Frank Zecher of Lancaster, PA filed for D29686, "Toy bank", again as the Maine.

On the 29 September 1898 Conrad Stein of Bridgeport, CT filed for D29649, "Game board". The text says that the Spanish and American flags are above the forts.

On the 30 September 1898 William Brown of New York City filed for D29661, "Spoon". The text explains that it commemorates Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders volunteers, who fought in Cuba.

On the 6 October 1898 Charles Bailey of Cromwell, CT filed for D29687, "Toy money bank" -- almost inevitably, as the Maine. On the 26 May he had already filed for an earlier version.

On the 27 October 1898 Ole Prestholdt of Clarkfield, MN filed for D29812, "Medal or similar article". The text explains that Uncle Sam, while feeding chickens, is shooting a hawk that represents Spain while in the background is yes, the Maine. On the other side are images of notable Americans such as President McKinley.

On the 21 January 1899 Josephine Altshuler of New Whatcom, WA filed for D30210, "Game board". The big map is Cuba, the small map Manila Bay.

On the 11 April 1899 Morrison Swan of Manilla, IA filed for D30714, "Breastpin". It shows Dewey.

There is then quite a gap until the 8 July 1899, when Charles Kaiser of Rockport, IN filed for D31313, "chair seat and back". It shows President McKinley and the wrecked Maine. I wonder if the inventor considered if it was polite to sit on an image of the wrecked ship.

On the 11 July 1899 August Grametbaur of New York City filed for D31434, "Plate". Dewey is in the middle, surrounded by his leading naval officers.

On the 30 August 1899 Warren Greveling of New York City filed for D32001, "Lamp body". It shows Dewey.

Finally, on the 8 March 1900 Anson Bacon of Halliwell, ME filed for D32728, "Pencil". It shows Dewey.

The slogan "Remember the Maine" only turned up once -- as an example of what could be used in setting up type, in "Printing form". Filed on the 7 July 1898, it was published as utility patent 626649.

I found the designs on Google Patents Advanced by specifying a time period and designs and then searching the accompanying explanatory text for each design by keywords such as Dewey, Cuba, etc. The database seems to contain a full set of design numbers for showing PNG images of the drawing pages, but as the remainder is scanned content it is likely that some material has been missed. Of course, if no keywords were mentioned then relevant Design Patents won't turn up. There is a classification scheme, but this would simply define badges, pins, flags and so on.

A specific design can be found on that database by asking for e.g, D27621.

9 May 2014

The only way is Essex: an infringement ?

I saw in today's Metro free newspaper that a fish and chip shop in Ongar, The only way is Fish, has been accused of infringing the rights of TV show The only way is Essex. It is supposed to be a reality show (though I must admit it looked scripted to me) about attractive, young, prosperous people in Brentwood, Essex.

According to the article, the letter they received said that Lime Pictures had copyrighted the use of "The only way is..." The shop was also said to be using a similar logo.

I see three puzzles here. I am not a lawyer or patent attorney, and these are my understandings of UK law.

(1) You cannot, in the UK, apply to copyright something. You use it and then assert it.

(2) You cannot assert copyright over a sentence, or over a title of a book or a show. You can, however, register trade marks for specific goods or services (a subtly different area of intellectual property).

(3) Lime Pictures has registered The only way is Essex for numerous activities, but not for Class 43, which includes catering services.

The company is on sounder ground if they claim that the shop is trading off the reputation of the show, or using the logo unfairly. Even if the big company does not suffer, they rarely like a small business being (as they would see it) cheeky. They have gone to a lot of trouble publicising the mark, and tend to resent anyone cheapening their image and -- as they see it -- exploiting the work that they have done. They also tend to have deeper pockets.

There are 8 UK and one pan-European registrations (EU12637591, which lists items as required within many classes). Here is the logo as in that EU trade mark:

The UK registrations use a different version:

It is this general look that the shop has -- unwisely, I would suggest -- used. An article in today's Daily Mail shows the look.

One for the lawyers, of course, but my thoughts are that using both the phrase, and the look of the logo, makes it clear that the similarities are not accidental, and that potential customers will be reminded of the show (which takes place in nearby Brentwood). "Passing off", I suspect, is what can be claimed here. The general principles are discussed in the Wikipedia article on passing off.

5 May 2014

Another episode of Make me a millionaire inventor

Last night was another episode of Make me a millionaire inventor (Sundays on Pick, 11 on Freeview, 7 pm), which featured a nursing bra and a remedy for seasickness. I have posted on a previous show and the format, and as before had the pleasure of seeing my name credited at the end for help.

Declan McDonnell, an administrator in Omagh, Northern Ireland, had invented a nursing or maternity bra which can be adjusted to increase by a cup size, say from 34B to 34C. This is useful as breast sizes increase a a result of breastfeeding. A hook and eye arrangement at the sides do this.

McDonnell had formerly worked in a factory making bras, and his wife had complained when they had their first child of the problem with tight nursing bras. So he had both knowledge and a motive. A World Patent application, An expandable brassiere, was published in 2011. This document listed at the back five patents that had a certain similarity, which can be seen here. This important aspect was not mentioned in the programme. I see from the European Register data that a patent will be granted in the European system, and there is an American application. Below is the main drawing.

As before help was provided. McDonnell sourced a manufacturer in Latvia. He estimated that it would cost £6 to make, would be sold to shops for £12, and would probably retail at £24.99. 44 sizes would be needed (colours would of course make for more variations). Xpanda Bra was registered in the UK and EU-wide trade mark systems with the favourite artwork being given below.

The second invention was by Tim Flaxman, a Norfolk farmer. He was prone to motion sickness, and once when on the London underground had tried sticking his travel ticket inside his spectacles to block the vision in one eye. His desperate measure worked. He had bought 10,000 sunglasses at a cost of £30,000 and these were still stored at his farm, years on. Presumably blocking one lens is less obvious with sunglasses. TravelShades was registered as a trade mark in the UK as long ago as 2007.

In this case it was estimated that it would cost £5 to the retailer and would probably sell for £9.99 although £20 was later spoken of. The boat ride where people prone to motion sickness had a go with the adapted sunglasses was interesting, although it was crying out for research on variants on the basic principle: was a white card blocking one eye the best ? Did it matter which eye ?

Again a World Patent application was published, but only a British patent was secured, in 2011, as A pair of spectacles to reduce travel sickness. For a simple idea, it may seem strange that a 17 page document was needed. Below is the main drawing. It is still in force, says the British Register data.

Flaxman had also not researched if the concept was dangerous, and learnt from an eye specialist that while it was not a good idea for children it sounded safe enough for adults. It also emerged later on that as he was making a medical claim he might need permission to sell it as a medical device.

After training in presentation skills, which included for some reason singing, the two inventors had to make pitches for their inventions before people working in the trade. McDonnell asked for £75,000, Flaxman for just £25,000.

An existing £5 pill to deal with motion sickness was a possible problem but Flaxman was offered help, as was McDonnell for his bra. In the end McDonnell decided to go it alone.

While a single episode cannot cover all aspects of developing and marketing an invention some excellent points were made -- the need to make good, sensible presentations, the need to remember figures, the need to put together a sound business plan. It made for entertaining as well as informative viewing.

There is a website for Xpanda Bra, which is available to purchase, while TravelShades is not yet available but has a "contact us" website.