Monday, September 25, 2006

End of the USPTO's Document Disclosure Program?

Earlier this year the USPTO requested comments from the public on the proposed elimination of the Document Disclosure Program (DDP). The USPTO established the DDP in 1969 as a simple, low-cost way for inventors to document the date of conception of an invention as an alternative to the discredited practice of using a self-addressed envelope. (U.S. courts have never recognized a postmark as sufficient evidence of conception.)

This is the USPTO's second attempt to end the DDP. The previous attempt in 1998, although it received a number of favorable responses, was abandoned due to the lack of input from the independent inventor community. Opinions vary on the merits of the DDP. Some claim that it is open to abuse by unscrupulous Invention Promotion Companies (IPCs) and misuse by novice inventors. Others argue that is a safe and affordable way for first-time inventors to get their "feet wet" in the world of patents.

The most recent proposal, which was published in April in the Federal Register and in May in the Official Gazette of the USPTO, generated about two dozen comments from individuals and organizations.
The comments were generally split 50/50 in favor of eliminating the DDP; most were anecdotal and many acknowledged the lack of hard evidence to justify either course of action. (The lack of responses raises another question: where are all the independent inventors anyway? Could it be that young inventors aren't interested in the DDP? See the Sept. 9, 1999 issue of the New York Times for an article titled "Internet Connects Inventors to Information (and One Another).")

One of the most interesting responses was submitted by the United Inventors Association (UIA), an educational not-for-profit organization based in Rochester, New York whose mission is "to provide leadership, support and services to inventor support groups." The UIA letter, written by president Don Kelly, suggested that the USPTO had already decided to end the DDP and offered a counter-proposal: the "UIA is fully prepared to take on the management of the DDP." Will the USPTO accept the UIA's proposal and allow a private organization to manage the DDP, a program whose real value may be as a public relations tool?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Canadian Libraries Sparked an Inventor's Home Run

OCLC Canada has a new media campaign that links economic growth to libraries. The campaign features testimonials from individuals who have been helped by a librarian. One patent-related story comes from Sam Holman, owner of the Ottawa-based Original Maple Bat Company. According to the story, Mr. Holman "researched 225 related patents at multiple libraries in Ottawa, and realized that maple bats would be stronger and more durable than traditional ash."

Mr. Holman's patents include: CA2344077, US6334823, US6050910; he has several more pending applications in Japan and Austrialia. Aspiring inventors may search Canadian patents and published applications from 1869 to the present at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office's patent database and the European Patent Office's esp@cenet database.

Patent Bending Week 5

Tom Stewart and Russel Zeid, hosts of Patent Bending on Discovery Channel Canada, and Rick Minke, their master building/industrial designer, take a look at 19th century personal safety technology in this week's episode. The subject is a U.S. patent from 1879 called "Improvement in Fire Escapes" invented by Benjamin B. Oppenheimer. (US 221,855) The invention combines a head-mounted parachute and thick rubber soled shoes that is supposed to allow a human to safely escape a burning building. (This patent frequently appears on lists of wacky patents.)

With the aid of a crash test dummy named "Sandy", the team quickly discovers that the original design is more hazardous than helpful. (Damn those laws of physics!) Quickly they regroup and scale-down the device to accomodate pets such as cats and gerbils. Their improved design works, much to the relief of pet owners everywhere. (No animals were harmed in the making of this episode.)

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Patent Bending and the Greatest Canadian Inventor

Last month I reported that Discovery Channel Canada was launching a new series called Patent Bending: Mad Ideas - Modern Science. The hosts of the show, inventor Tom Stewart and science guy Russell Zeid, find wacky patents and attempt to build working models based on the designs.

The first three episodes were mixed. The floating campsite was more camp than science. I kept hoping in vain that a bear would hijack the sorry rig. the bicycle lawnmower and 12-gauge golf club were very entertaining.

Unfortunately, there is virtually no discussion of the actual patents during the show. No one explains what a patent is, how the guys found the featured patents or shows the patent drawing. The web site also provides scant information on the original patents. For the bicycle lawnmower all it reveals is that the inspirational patent issued in 1984. (U.S. 4,455,816)

Perhaps we can hope for more from the CBC's "Greatest Canadian Invention" competition. The CBC is inviting viewers to vote for the best Canadian invention of all time. The fifty innovations include insulin, the Blackberry and lacrosse. The winner will be announced during a special show hosted by Bob McDonald on January 3, 2007.

USPTO Bans Wikipedia

According to the Sept. 4 issue of Business Week, the USPTO has recently banned Wikipedia as an acceptable source of information for determining the patentability of inventions. Patent examiners and applicants have been citing Wikipedia articles in patents since at least November 2003... and not very many of them at that. A quick search of the USPTO's patent database reveals that from January 2004 to the present only 74 patents cite Wikipedia articles. Compare that to 33,802 references to IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) publications. Other science and engineering publishers heavily favored by patent examiners and applicants include:

Association of Computing Machinery = 6,010
Elsevier = 4,493
Springer Verlag = 2,319
McGraw-Hill = 2,728
Chemical Abstracts Service = 2,274
Oxford Univ Press = 781
Society of Automotive Engineers = 968
American Society of Mechanical Engineers = 850
Society of Petroleum Engineers =706
Cambridge Univ Press = 639
Wiley Interscience = 545
MIT Press = 403
ASTM = 498
American Institute of Chemical Engineers = 207

Wikipedia did beat its arch rival Encyclopedia Britannica, which was cited in only 47 patents in the same time period.

Patent examiners and patent attorneys are highly trained (many have Masters or PhDs) and experienced professionals. The above stats show that most do know the difference between an authoritative source and a marginal or unreliable one. It may be that Wikipedia is the most appropriate source for some types of information. It's another form of “gray” literature that is well-suited to emerging or interdisciplinary fields that don’t have established vocabularies or literature. Besides, critics of the USPTO have long complained that patent examiners allow too many patents, especially in the fields of computer technology and business methods, that should have been refused on the basis of prior art found outside the realm of traditional publishing, such as open source software archives.

The USPTO’s own rules state that “[a]n electronic publication, including an on-line database or Internet publication,” may be valid reference if it is accessible to the public. Wikipedia certainly fits both criteria. What about CNET, Gizmodo, Slashdot and other popular tech sites where people discuss gadgets, share hacks and speculate on the future of technology?