Monday, July 21, 2008

Using RF to Treat Cancer

Last night Sixty Minutes did an interesting story on an inventor named John Kanzius who has developed a new radiofrequency therapy to treat tumors and cancerous cells. Kanzius, who has no technical or medical training, was inspired to invent by his fight with leukemia, a disease which still threatens to take his life. Kanzius has at least five US patent applications under review: 20050251233, 20050251234, 20050273143, 20060190063, and 20070250139. His earliest provisional application was filed on May 7, 2004. He also has two published EP applications and two PCT applications.

The treatment involves injecting a tumor with gold nanoparticles and exposing them to RF, which causes the cancerous cells to heat up and die. Adjacent cells are not harmed. The therapy has shown encouraging results in the lab, much to the amazement and delight of canceer researchers.

It just so happens that I am currently reading Margaret Cheney's excellent 1981 biography of Nikola Tesla, Tesla, Man Out of Time. Tesla was an early pioneer of wireless communication in the 1880s and 1890s and believed in the possibility of wireless transmission of electricity. He also speculated that radiofrequency waves might be used to treat human disease, although he never followed up on the idea. I think it's fascinating that more than one hundred years later someone might actually fulfill Tesla's vision.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Transparency in the US Patent System

An op-ed piece in the July 14th Wall Street Journal by L. Gordon Crovitz makes an interesting case about the shortcomings of the US patent system and the recent failure of Congress to enact patent reform. One of his criticisms is the lack of transparency in the system. This may seem odd given the amount of patent information that is available in public databases. Surely the public has never had better access to the latest patent information? Well, actually...

Although the USPTO was a leader among patent offices in publishing patent data on the web in the mid-1990s, over the past decade it hasn't invested much in its core patent databases, PatFT and AppFT. PatFT contains issued patents from 1790 to the present and AppFT contains published applications from 2001 forward. Creating a separate database for published applications may have made sense from an internal bureaucratic, ah...administrative, point of view, but it's a huge disadvantage to searchers because it forces them to do double the work. Almost every type of patent search, from a patentability search to a state-of-the-art search, must include both issued patents and published applications. Other third-party public databases such as esp@cenet, FreePatentsOnline and Patent Lens, allow users to search both types of documents at the same time.

Most patent offices publish patent documents in PDF format, but the USPTO still insists on using TIFF, an obscure format that is loathed by searchers because it requires them to install a special browser plugin such as AlternaTIFF or InterTIFF. And the USPTO still does not allow printing or saving multipage documents, forcing users to go to esp@cenet, which enabled multi-page downloads in 2004, or a third-party service like Pat2PDF, in order to download complete US documents. The USPTO allows does not allow exporting patent bibliographic data, which would be very useful for creating databases or spreadsheets for analysis purposes.

One of the biggest impediments to transparency is the fact that there is no central access point on the USPTO website to patent information. Patent documents, classification, status information, ownership, and post-grant actions are scattered in at least a half dozen systems and channels. For example, the USPTO publishes notices about expired patents, corrections, reexamination filings, reissue applications in the electronic Official Gazette, a weekly periodical that was first published (in print) in 1872. Even though the print edition was discontinued in favor of the electronic in 2002, the format of these notices has not really changed in more than fifty years. Although the OG is searchable back to 1995, it would be much more convenient to make this data available in the PatFT database and allow users to create RSS or e-mail alerts for individual patents. Users who want to check on the ownership status of a patent or published application must use the Assignments on the Web database. Users who want to view the contents of a file wrapper must use the PAIR system. Neither system is connected to the PatFT or AppFT databases.

So while the public has much better access to US patent information than it did 15 years ago, it is still very difficult to find given that it is locked up in so many different silos and stovepipes on the USPTO website. The end result is a very fragmented, user-unfriendly system that effectively hides important information.

Classification Order 1878 - Class 16, Misc. Hardware and Class 52, Buildings

The USPTO has issued a new classification order, #1878, covering changes to Classes 16, Miscellaneous Hardware, and 52, Static Structures (Buildings). Static structures include all types of constructions ranging from amusement park rides and sports stadiums to wind turbines and gravestones. The principal changes in Class 52 affect subclasses related to beams, columns, girders, shafts, reinforcing bars and rods. As of July 1, there are approximately 92,500 patents and 10,600 published applications classified in Class 52.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Medical Innovators: Michael E. Debakey

Dr. Michael DeBakey, a heart surgeon who invented dozens of medical procedures, devices and instruments, died this weekend at age 99 after a extremely long and productive career. (He continued practicing medicine well into his 90s.) While in medical school in the 1930s, he devised a device called a roller pump that eventually would become a core technology in heart-lung machines. Although Dr. Debakey is recognized for many innovations, he only patented a few inventions, including a rotary blood pump in 1999. (US5947892)

Other American medical innovators include Dr. John Gibbon, inventor of the heart-lung machine (US2,702,035) and Forrest M. Bird, inventor of the first low-cost medical respirator in the world. (US3,068,856)

Patenting medical procedures and devices is controversial. Some countries, such as Canada, ban patents for medical therapies. In the 1950s, the American Medical Association lobbied to extend patent protection to medical treatments but as recently as 1995, it condemned doctors who sought to patent certain medical procedures.

Researchers See Patent Quality in Rising Citation Counts

Joff Wild, a journalist and blogger for Intellectual Asset Management Magazine, makes some interesting observations about a new study that claims that the quality of patents issued by the USPTO is rising. The research found, among other things, significant growth in prior art citations in issued patents over the last five years: 41 percent more US patent docs, 36 percent more foreign patent docs and 23 percent more non-patent literature. Wild points out that this research contradicts claims that US patent examiners frequently miss relevant prior art and issue low-quality patents. The research was published in the June issue of Les Nouvelles, the official publication of the Licensing Executives Society (LES).

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

U.S. Patent Counts, Q2 2008

The USPTO published 77,691 patent applications (A docs) in Q2, a six percent increase over the same quarter last year and the second straight quarter over 77,000, but a slight decline from the Q1 2008. The USPTO is on track to publish over 310,000 applications this year. Approximately 1.8 million plant and utilty patent applications have been published since 2001.

The number of issued patents (B docs) rebounded from 43,657 in Q1 to 49,353 in Q2, a dramatic 13 percent jump and a six percent increase over the previous year. Curiously, the number of issued patents remained flat for most of Q2.

Table 1. Quaterly Patent and PGPub Counts*

Qn ..... Patents .....PGPubs ..... Total
Q1 ..... 43,657 ..... 77,962 ..... 121,619
Q1 ..... 49,353 ..... 77,691 ..... 127,044

*Based on preliminary weekly data from the USPTO website. Totals may change after the fact due to withdrawn patents and published applications.

Table 2. Weekly Averages and Medians (Q2)

Patents ..... 3,796 ..... 3,841
PGPubs ..... 5,976 ..... 6,231

Table 3. Number Ranges for 2008 (Totals)

Patents ..... 7,313,829 - 7,392,547 (78,309)
Reissues ..... RE39,964 - RE40,405 (441)
PGPubs ..... 2008/0000001 - 2008/0155725 (155,725)
Designs ..... D558,426 - D571,975 (13,530)
Plants ..... PP18,373 - PP18,990 (618)
SIRs ..... H2,208 - H2,218 (11)

Saturday, July 05, 2008

When I teach people how to conduct a proper search of the patent literature, I always find it challenging to convince them that they need to include older patents in their searches. Most people, especially undergraduate students, are content to do keyword searches that will retrieve only patents from the mid-1970s forward. They seem to believe that older patents couldn't possibly be relevant to whatever technology they're interested in. Of course, this is not the case: there are many technologies that can trace their origins back to the mid-19th century (or even earlier).

I decided recently that I needed some hard data to back up my arguments, so I looked at the cited references in recently issued patents in selected USPC classes and subclasses. References are cited by applicants and patent examiners based on their relevance to the patented invention. Of course, this includes patents back to 1790. For this exercise I chose bicycles (280/2*), stirling engines (60/517), wind turbines (Class 416), fuel cells (Class 429), hydrocarbons (Class 580) and surgical instruments (Class 606). I retrieved the 20 most recent patents in each class/subclass and compiled the references to US patents in a spreadsheet. The results were very interesting.

In four of the five classes/subclasses, the total number of references ranged from 247 to 297; the median number of references ranged from 6 in fuel cells (Class 429) to 11.5 in wind turbines (Class 416). Surgical instruments (Class 606) had 1110 references, almost four times the average in the other four categories, with a median of 45 references per patent. The earliest references ranged from 1867 in surgical instruments to 1966 in fuel cells. Fuel cells had the fewest pre-1976 references (1 or 0.44 percent). But approximately 10 percent of the references in stirling engines, hydrocarbons and bicycles were earlier than 1976. Surgical instruments had 5 percent and wind turbines had 7 percent.

This data illustrates the importance of pre-1976 patents in the technological record and makes a strong argument for searching by patent classification. With the exception of fuel cells, all categories had a substantial number of references prior to 1976 which would not be retrieved by keyword searches.

Pringles Aren't Potato Chips

A UK judge has decided that Pringles aren't potato chips, which could save Procter & Gamble millions in taxes every year. The judge based his decision in part on the fact that the chip-like snack is only 42 percent potato. The UK doesn't apply sales tax to most foods, but potato chips and other snack-like products are taxed.

Pringles were invented more than forty years ago by Alexander Liepa, a food scientist at Cincinnati-based P&G. Liepa received a patent (3396036) on August 6, 1968 for a "potato food product" made from a dough consisting of 21-46 percent potato solids, 1-15 percent milk solids and 53-73 percent water. He later patented additional improvements to the formula (3998975) and the design of a machine for molding the dough into the product's trademark concave shape (3608474). (Also see trademark application 75207172.)

Happy 40th birthday, Pringles!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Independence Day!

A few patriotic patents for your enjoyment on the 4th of July. The first is a jack-in-the-box featuring a rather creepy-looking Uncle Sam (US978489); next are matching picture frames with Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam--a perfect gift for queen and king who have everything! (US1283100); the third is a bottle shaped like Uncle Sam holding what appears to be a rifle--for taking shots at squirrels and evil doers?! (USD29331); and, finally, two flags inspired by the design of the US flag. It's surprising how many patent flag designs there are based on Old Glory. See USPC D11/167 and D11/168.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Peer to Patent Review Program Update

The USPTO has announced the results of its year-long patent review pilot program called Peer to Patent. The purpose of the program, which was launched in June 2007, was to evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of an online-based system where registered experts could submit prior art related to pending patent applications. The pilot program was limited to 250 applications in the computer technologies. According to the USPTO, the program recruited 2,000 experts who submitted 173 pieces of prior art related to 40 applications. Patent examiners used the prior art to reject 12 applications, about five percent of the applications in the system.

It's interesting to note that the USPTO's current backlog of unexamined applications is about 750,000. Given the size of the backlog and the record-breaking levels of new filings (467,000 in 2007), it's difficult if not impossible to imagine how Peer to Patent might have any significant impact on the examination process or patent pendency.

In the 1970s the USPTO launched a similar program (but without the technology) called the Trial Voluntary Protest Program. Under TVPP, the public was invited to submit prior art on two thousand selected applications. Only a handful of prior art submissions were received and only a few applications rejected. The USPTO concluded that the program was ineffective and decided not to pursue it.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Happy Canada Day!

In honour of Canada Day, here are a few Canadian industrial designs that are based on the maple leaf, the national symbol of Canada. All were retrieved from the CIPO's industrial design database, which includes designs registered from1861 to the present. Unfortunately, CIPO doesn't classify designs by shape, so the only way to retrieve specific designs is by keyword searching in the title or description field. The designs include a sun visor (71471), sunglasses (24929), poncho (106525), pin (100394) and glove (109475).