Thursday, September 20, 2007

Baby Products, Patent Numbers and a Puzzle

My wife and I are going to be new parents any day now, so our house has been filling up with all kinds of cool baby-related products. (We're having twins, so that means two of everything.) Of course, I can't resist examing all these amazing products for patent numbers. One product that piqued my interest was a rubber diaper fastener called the Snappi. It's a rubber T-shaped cord with plastic teeth that's supposed to be safer than safety pins. I thought it looked like a trap for miniature beavers, but it worked well enough in practice trials on Winnie-the-Pooh.

The back of the Snappi label had a patent application number that looked odd to me. It said "Pat. Appl. 2005/01115". U.S. published application (aka PGPubs) have publication numbers in the format "YYYY/nnnnnnnn", so I went to the USPTO website and keyed in 20050001115. No luck. US 2005/0001115 is an application for a collapsible dishwashing stand. I then tried searching it as an application number in both the USPTO and esp@cenet databases. Again no luck. It didn't look like a Canadian, European or Japanese patent number, so I was quickly becoming stumped. Pooh was too busy admiring his first-class diaper job to offer any helpful advice.

Luckily, the Snappi label also carried the number of a registered trademark, 1,773,066. I switched over to the USPTO trademark database and quickly retrieved the trademark registration for SNAPPI, owned by Snappi Holdings of Pretoria, South Africa. Searching Snappi as the assignee in the USPTO patent database then led me to inventor Hendrik Visser and his patent on a "Diaper or babies napkin fastener", (5,077,868) and two design patents (D321,673 and D320,575) for diaper fasteners invented by Japie Crafford. All three patents closely resemble our Snappi fasteners, but I never did find a patent document numbered 2005/01115. Visser has several other patents and patent applications for related products.

I did notice that the three U.S. patents listed South African applications as priority documents, and the numbers were in a "YY/nnnn" format. So my best guess was that "2005/01115" is a new South Africa application filed by Snappi. It might be too recent to have been loaded in the esp@cenet database (if it's even been published). As I slumped back into my chair, it occured to me that patent numbers are not always as straightforward as you might think.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

2007 Lasker Awards

The 2007 Lasker Awards, sometimes called "America's Nobels", were announced on Sept. 15.

The Lasker Award for Outstanding Basic Medical Research was awarded to Dr. Steinman of Rockefellar University for his discovery of dendritic cells, a type of immune cell that plays a key role in the immune systems of humans and other mammals. His research has led to new insights into HIV, allergies and other autoimmune diseases. Dr. Steinman has received at least a dozen U.S. patents
(5,851,756, 5,994,126, 6,602,709, 7,198,948, etc.) related to his research.

Drs. Albert Starr of the Providence Health System in Portland, Oregon and Alain Carpentier of Hopital Europeen Georges Pompidou in Paris will share the Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research for their contributions to open-heart surgery. In 2000, Dr. Starr received a U.S. patent (6,045,576) for a sewing ring used in the implantation of prosthetic heart valves. He has also received patents for his invention in Australia (AU727250), Canada (CA2303289), Europe (EP1600127) and Japan (JP3701198). Dr. Carpentier has received more than 30 U.S. patents for various devices related to heart surgery, including several prosthetic heart valves (4,106,129, 4,790,843, 5,814,100, 6,558,418, etc.), and has filed dozens of patent applications worldwide.

The Lasker Awards have been awarded by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation in almost every year since 1944.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

New USPC Classification Orders

The USPTO has recently issued several new classification orders affecting Classes 375 (Pulse or Digital Communications), 386 (Television Signal Processing for Dynamic Recording or Reproduction) and 525 (Synthetic Resins or Rubbers).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

WIPO Proposes Supplementary International Patent Search

The WIPO General Assembly is likely to approve a supplementary international patent search, according to comments made by WIPO Deputy Director Francis Gurry quoted in IP Watch. This will allow applicants to request a supplemental search from another patent office other than a designated international search authority. For example, an applicant could request an initial search from the USPTO and a supplemental search by the Chinese patent office. The goal of this proposal is to improve the quality of searches across multiple languages.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Downloading Foreign Patents

When I need to download a copy of a patent for myself or a client, I usually go right to esp@cenet. Since esp@cenet includes ~60 million patent documents from more than 70 countries, the odds of finding a patent or at least a family member are very good. However, sometimes I discover that esp@cenet won't let me download the patent I want because it is too long (~80 pages or more). This is no big deal if it's a US patent... there are plenty of other websites where I can download PDF copies of US patents. But if it's a patent from another country, things get a bit more complicated... Below are a few alternate patent sites that don't have page-limit restrictions.

PatentScope (WIPO)
PatentScope is a database of published international PCT applications maintained by the World Intellectual Property Office. You can download copies of PCT applications and cited national priority applications in PDF or TIFF formats. If your patent or application was cited as priority document in a PCT application, you should be able to obtain a PDF copy from the PatentScope record. How do you know if your patent was cited in a PCT application? Easy: simply look up the patent family in esp@cenet and check any PCT applications that are included.

DEPATISnet (German PTO)
DEPATISnet is esp@cenet's little brother, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in smarts. DEPATISnet doesn't cover nearly as many countries as esp@cenet but it does cover the major and several minor patent offices. Documents are stored in PDF and can be easily downloaded with no page limit restrictions. (I recently used DepatisNet to retrieve a copy of a 121-page German patent application from 1975.)

Patent Application Information Retrieval (PAIR) System (USPTO)
If the desired foreign patent was cited in a US patent issued after June 30, 2003, a PDF copy should be available in the electronic file wrapper stored in the Public PAIR system. You can find US patents that cite foreign by searching the number in the FREF field in the PatFT database. If you get a hit, simply retrieve the US patent's file wrapper from PAIR and look up the foreign reference. All cited foreign patents are labeled "foreign reference", so you may have to look at a few until you find the right one.

GCN Report on USPTO e-Filing System

Government Computer News has a report on the success of the USPTO's new e-filing system, EFS-Web. Since the system went into full product in March 2006, the USPTO has:
  • Seen new applications filed electronically rise to 60 percent
  • Received 850,000 application and other documents via EFS-Web
  • Trained 30,000 people to use EFW-Web
  • Saved $7.8 million

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Clothing Design Patents

<-- The "Frau Blucher" <-- The "Rosie the Riveter"

<-- The "Marian the Librarian"

Here are a few clothing design patents from the mid 1940s. Not exactly stylish by today's standards, but hey, there was a war on.

As I reported a few days ago, clothing designers rec'd thousands of design patents in the 1930s and 1940s.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

US Classification Tools - New Feature

The USPTO's online classification search system has a new feature that will make browsing classification schedules much easier. Users can now use an "Outline" feature to collapse any schedule from its normal full display to just its mainline through level five indents. Users can also click on -/+ symbols on the left side of the schedule to collapse or expand individual sections.

Fig. 1. Outline On/Off and Level Menu are Located at the Top of the Schedule

Fig. 2. Class 623 Collapsed to Mainline Indents

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Fashion Designers Look to Copyright, Not Design Patents

An article in today's New York Times discusses the growing threat that high-end fashion designers face from low-cost imitations of their most popular clothing designs. Their industry trade group is lobbying Congress to extend copyright design to clothing. Copyright already protects fabric, textile and jewelry designs, and patterns for sewing, knitting, needlepoint, etc. In some cases, trademark and trade dress law will protect a unique clothing design or element such as the stitching on a pair of jeans.

The fashion industry seems to have forgotten that clothing is eligible for design patent protection. Perhaps copyright's longer term (the life of the author plus 70 years or 95 years for works made for hire) is simply more attractive than the 14-year term for design patents. Or perhaps copyright is more difficult to "design around" than design patents.

But there was a time in the mid-20th century when clothing designers loved design patents. In fact, approximately 15 percent of the design patents issued in the 1930s and 1940s were for apparel and haberdashery designs (Class D2 in the USPC). Many of these designs were for dresses, robes, pants and other garments typically sold in department stores and mom-and-pop clothing stores.

Curiously, clothing design patents took a nosedive on the catwalk in the 1950s and 60s, and bell-bottomed out in the 1970s. Only 2 percent of the design patents issued in the 1970s are in Class D2, which also includes footwear. They rebounded in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to the growing market for athletic shoes. Almost 50 percent of the D2 design patents issued since 1990 were assigned to Adidas, Nike and Reebok.

Why did the fashion industry turn its back on design patents? Was it a change in patent law? Unlikely, since a few clothing designs are still patented each year.

Clothing Design Patents, 1900-2007

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Politicians and Patents

Although politicians make patent laws, very few have had any real first-hand experience as inventors.

Perhaps the best known politician-inventor is President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, an attorney from Springfield, Illinois who had a life-long interest in inventions, received patent No. 6,469 on May 22, 1849 for a method of buoying vessels over shoals. (Amazingly, Lincoln filed his patent application only 73 days earlier on March 10—a pendency no modern inventor could hope for!)

The least known politician-inventor may very well be Harold LeClair Ickes, also of Illinois. Technically, Ickes was not a politician since he never held elected office. But he was politically active and campaigned for various progressive Republicans in the 1910s and 1920s. And In 1933, Ickes was appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a position he would hold until 1946. Independently-minded and honest, Ickes is noted for his competent management of the Public Works Administration, opposition to corruption and hostility toward facism.

When he wasn't out campaigning for progressive causes, Ickes was an avid gardener and cultivator of dahlias. Shortly after Congress enacted a new law extending patent protection to certain asexually reproduced plants, Ickes applied for and received a plant patent for a new variety of dahlia that had an unusual and striking blend of colors described as coral red and Eugenie red. Unlike Lincoln, who had a response in less than three months, Ickes would have to wait 1 year, 5 months and 1 day for his patent.

Harold Ickes' Dahlia, Plant Patent No. 19