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]


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.

3 March 2014

Clear Notes® on Dragons’ Den

Last night Clear Notes®, a stationery product, was promoted on BBC2's Dragons’ Den by John MacLeod. UK residents can see it for a week (only) at this site.

It was an intriguing product: a transparent sticky label where the ink could be wiped off for reuse. ThePost It® semi-sticky label has been around since the Boise Blitz of 1978 publicised it, and was published as US 3691140. Could this be the next step forward ?

MacLeod made his pitch. As he spoke, I made notes, but failed to notice the name of his company. As it emerged that he hadn't actually made any sales -- just a promise of being in a stationery catalogue in November 2014 -- I saw the packaging and, while still watching, began my research on Web databases.

It was mentioned that the name had been trade marked, while a British patent was pending. I used the British official trade mark database to find that Clear Notes had been registered as UK00002612356 in July 2012 in Class 16, for stationery, by Lux Creations Limited. Trade marks are registered for one or more classes of services or goods to allow a trade mark to be used in different activities, provided no confusion is likely to arise among consumers. To provide extra clarification the nature of the goods must be spelt out. 

The same database also has European trade marks, as these are also valid for the UK, and I consider the company lucky that its application was apparently not objected to by Taiwan Hopax Chemicals, the owner of EU002156050, for Clearnote. It was registered in 2002, also for Class 16, including "self-adhesive labels". While not 100% identical it would be, I believe, easy to confuse the two.

I next turned to the search engine on the UK IPO website. In most countries patent specifications are totally secret until they are published, which is 18 months from application. In the UK a title and the name of the applicant are disclosed a few weeks after application, and I was hoping to find this, so that I could determine roughly when the details would be available. The search engine searches, among other things, the Official Journal (Patents) which records such data on a weekly basis. I could have confined my search just to the Journal by using a searchable format (but be careful to adjust the default date ranges). This has the advantage of highlighting the requested words in yellow. 

There were four patent applications for "Lux Creations", one a refiling of an earlier one, as shown in the results (shown here from the searchable journal format). Note the different title information, and the note also that the company is sometimes not given by small companies, as the application might have been initially in the name of the inventor. If I hadn't found hits by using the company name I would have tried John MacLeod's name. 

The patent specifications ought to be published 18 months from the earliest date given in the entry. Apparently new filings sometimes are amended applications, with additional matter, with the original application abandoned. 

I next turned to the free Espacenet database, and found a British patent application in the name of Lux Creations, Note pad formed of removable transparent sheets. It was based on two of those applications and was published as long ago as March 2013. 

I next turned to the search report at the end of that specification. Unlike US patent applications, a list of relevant "prior art" is listed there. In this case, there were 6 patents listed as "X" for claims 1-18. That is, every part of the claimed technology had been anticipated by those six patents. They can be looked at by using the "Cited patents" tab at the left hand side, or can be seen here. Top of the list is one by the same Taiwan Hopax Chemicals who had the European trade mark Clearmark. This is their Transparent plastic writing sheet. The mention of "pending" on the showwas a little vague: I had thought that nothing was published, when in fact there was a 9 month old, rather damning report suggesting the concept was not new. 

With the patent application number, GB2494982, it is then possible to search the UK IPO's Ipsum database (which is only searchable by number). The results may not look interesting but by clicking on "Documents" at top right a list of correspondence becomes available. The September 2013 item is a letter from the IPO saying that substantive examination -- asking for the Patent Office to use the search report to determine if they think it ought to be granted -- had not yet been requested. It explained that the application would be regarded as abandoned if a request had not been received within two months of the 27 September 2013. Yet the initial record simply says status is "awaiting first examination". I'd expect it to say it was not valid. Filming of the show presumably does occur some months before the transmission date, so "pending" would have been correct, though questions on the show about the search report would have been useful. 

The next step would be to consider the possibility that the later patent filings might be published and considered in their turn. If nothing else, this little case study shows how complicated it can be to find data. Not everything is on the Internet, and it's often near impossible for novices to find things in some cases -- let alone interpret correctly what has been found. 

The dragons decided not to invest. They thought it was overvalued (MacLeod wanted £50,000 in return for 10% of the equity, and so was valuing it at £500,000), and they were doubtful if the concept could be patented. 

Yes, it could, the problem actually being that others seem to have got there first.