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Ciciora's Corner - Patents and you

Mon, 11/19/2012 - 12:43pm
Walt S. Ciciora, expert on cable and consumer electronics issues

There are a number of fun patents, and there is even a website for absurd patents.

Walt S. CicioraPatents are still very much in the news. I discussed a broad review of patents in my last column. This month, I will drill down a bit. I hope you went to Google Patents and downloaded one or more just to see what they look like.

Only utility patents will be discussed here. Design patents are not usually obtained by engineers. A utility patent document usually has several distinct parts, some of which are legal requirements. The first page of the patent has a title section across the top with the first named inventor, patent number and date of issue. Next is the title of the patent, and then a complete listing of the named inventors and their residences, followed by an application number and the date of filing. The field of search is a listing of numerical categories the patent office uses to sort out different fields of invention. It’s just an indexing system where similar inventions might be found. A list of references provides sources of similar patents and publications that can be used to fill in the background and demonstrate what has previously been done. The patent office examiner and the representative of the inventors are identified. A brief abstract summarizes the invention. And a representative drawing appears on the first sheet.

Next are the drawings made according to patent office rules. Two general types of drawings are functional block diagrams and flow charts. The elements of the drawings are numbered, and the text refers to the numbers when describing the drawings.

The text of the patent is called the specification. It begins with a section called the background of the invention. This describes the general area of the invention and the problems in the prior art. These are the problems the new invention seeks to ameliorate or solve. A good invention will solve a “long-felt need” and will succeed where others have failed. The background section will broadly describe what “one of ordinary skill in the art” would be expected to know. This is important because you can’t describe everything that goes into the invention. You have to make some assumptions about what the reader will know and what sort of background knowledge he or she will have. Carl Sagan famously said: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” This can’t apply here.

The summary of the invention is just that. It’s a brief description of what has been invented and how it solves the problems with the prior art described in the background section. It often has several paragraphs that begin with: “It is an object of the invention to provide an apparatus and method to. …” The brief description of the drawings follows with just one sentence per drawing. There is very little detail in this listing.

Next are two sections that do the heavy lifting: the detailed description of the preferred embodiments and the claims. You will recall from the discussion in the last column that a patent can be considered a deal between the inventor and society, wherein the inventor makes a complete disclosure of the invention and how to practice it in exchange for a limited period of exclusivity, during which the inventor has the right to preclude others from making, selling or using the invention. The inventor is not required to describe every possible way of practicing the invention, just at least one preferred way, called a preferred embodiment. More than one embodiment is better, but not all need be disclosed. The figures play an important role in this section. As mentioned earlier, each element of a drawing is numbered. Those numbers are called out in the specification, and the associated elements are described in detail, along with any interaction there might be with other elements.

The preferred embodiment section usually ends with a statement that other variations and modifications that would occur to one of ordinary skill in the art are included as part of the invention.

The claims are the heart of the patent. They define the scope of the invention. If a feature or function is not covered by a claim, it is not part of the invention, even if it is described in detail in the specification. The creation of claims is highly technical and should only be done by an experienced patent attorney or patent agent. Reading the claims of a patent will convince you of this.

There are a number of fun patents. Patent number 6,733,362 covers a bra. Another example is 5,443,036, “A method of exercising a cat.” It’s a very short patent, only four pages, having only four claims and one drawing sheet. I have personally infringed that patent, since I used it. However, we are unlikely to ever know if it is a valid patent because no one will challenge it in court. That’s an expensive exercise, and there is no financial motivation to do that.

There is even a website for absurd patents. Visit it and get a laugh or two.

Email: wciciora@ieee.org

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