Friday, August 21, 2009

Robotic Fish Farms

Fish farming is under attack from environmentalists who claim that it pollutes bays and inlets and spreads infectious diseases like salmon anaemia. The main problem is that cages used in most fish farms are fixed in place, which concentrates fish waste and uneaten food on the sea floor. Clifford Goudey, a researcher at MIT, has invented a fish pen propelled by robotic engines, which will allow fish farmers to deploy their pens in a wider area and along natural fish migration routes. Goudey has patented a number of fishing-related inventions, including a mobile ring fish pen. (US5617813)

Patents related to floating fish farms are classified in ECLA A01K61/00F.

Underwater Logging

A story in the Globe and Mail this week reported on a project to harvest dead trees, including valuable teak and mahogany, from a man-made lake in Ghana. The total value of the wood is estimated at up to $3 billion. This isn't the first time that entrepreneurs have proposed recovering wood from the bottom of lakes and rivers. By some estimates, millions of logs were lost in North American rivers during log drives in the last century. Several small-scale recovery projects in BC and the State of Maine are underway. It made me wonder if anyone had patented technology for underwater logging.

Patents related to forestry are classified in ECLA classification A01G23. So a logical esp@cenet search strategy might be to combine A01G23 with the keywords "underwater" OR "submerg*". This retrieves six documents, including three by inventor Cyril Burton of Castlegar, BC. Burton's earliest patent was issued in 1973 for an "Underwater Saw for Stump and Tree Removal"; his most recent, a "Submersible Logging Device", was issued in 1999. A Canadian application published in 2003 (CA2635367) describes a "method and apparatus for underwater tree cutting and retrieval" that involves a remote-controlled submarine and inflatable airbags.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

New Leadership at the USPTO

The USPTO has a new leader. On Thursday, August 13, David Kappos was sworn in as the Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He's the 52nd person to hold that position since it was established in 1836.

The appointment and confirmation of Kappos was fairly speedy: only 6 months and 24 days after President Obama's inauguration. President George W. Bush took almost eleven months to appoint James E. Rogan head of the USPTO in 2001. Bruce Lehman, President Clinton's first Commissioner of Patents, was sworn in on Aug. 11, 1993.

How long will Kappos stay? The average term in recent years is between 2-4 years. Jon Dudas, Kappos' immediate predecessor, served from Jan. 2004 to Nov. 2008 (including 5 months as acting director). James Rogan, President Bush's first USPTO chief, served barely two years, from Dec. 2001 to Jan. 2004. Q. Todd Dickinson also served just 2 years, Jan. 1, 1999 to Jan. 20, 2001, including almost a year as acting director. Bruce Lehman served from 1993 through the end of 1998, almost 5.5 years.

Kappos faces a number of tough challenges including a huge backlog of pending applications, declining revenue due to lower filings and fewer paid maintenance fees, delayed patent reform legislation and disatisfaction among the USPTO's 6,000 patent examiners.

The longest serving USPTO directors of the last hundred years were Thomas E. Robertson, who served during the Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations from 1921 through 1933, and Conway Coe, who served from 1933 through 1945. The director with the shortest tenure was Melvin Coulston, who served just one month, March 3 to April 5, 1921.

Friday, August 14, 2009

"Investing in patents is no country for old men."

... That's the message one pundit sees in this week's patent infringement ruling against Microsoft. The article makes some interesting points about the cost of litigating a patent lawsuit and speculates on why Microsoft (or any high tech company) might chance a lawsuit rather than license a new and unproven technology.

i4i won a huge legal victory. But at what cost?
Fabrice Taylor
Globe and Mail, Aug. 14, 2009

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul, 1915-2009

World-renowned musician Les Paul, whose invention of the solid-body electric guitar transformed popular music in the 1950s and 60s, died on Aug. 12 at the age of 94. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.

Mr. Paul held at least two patents related to electric guitars. The first, which is mentioned in his NIHF bio, was issued in 1962. (US 3,018,680) The second, US 3,725,561, was issued ten years later in 1973. Both have been cited in numerous patents over the last forty years.

Many musicians have followed Les Paul's example and patented inventions. Eddie Van Halen, co-founder of the 1980s mega-band Van Halen, has two patents (US 7,183,475 and US 4,656,917) and a design patent for a guitar peghead, US D388117. And in 1993, Michael Jackson patented (US 5,255,452) a special shoe that would allow a wearer to lean forward beyond his or her center of gravity, thus creating "an anti-gravity illusion".

Patent Ruling Against Microsoft

The big news today is the patent dispute between software leviathan Microsoft and i4i, a small (30 employees) Toronto-based software developer. Two years ago i4i sued Microsoft for using its patented technology in Microsoft Word. Yesterday, a judge in Texas overseeing the case ordered Microsoft to stop selling Word in sixty days.

The patent in question is US 5,787,449, a "method and system for manipulating the architecture and the content of a document separately from each other." Basically, i4i invented a way to turn the information in any word processing document into a searchable database by mapping the metacodes, such as XML, in the document.

Although relatively few patents are cited in later patents, i4i's patent, which was issued in 1998, has been cited by a dozen patents assigned to IBM, Microsoft, Sun, Hitachi, Xerox and Netscape. This is a strong indication that i4i's technology is important.

It's interesting to note that computer-controlled text processing technology goes back more than 50 years. i4i's patent is classified in USPC Class 715, which covers data processing related to documents, interfaces and screen savers. About 20,000 patents and 20,000 published applications are classified in 715. The earliest patent classified in 715 is US 2,762,485, issued on Sept. 11, 1956, for an "automatic composing machine." The patent describes a system for printing text using a computer-controlled type-setting machine.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

US Assignment Data in espacenet

The June issue of Patent Information News states that the EPO is in the process of reloading US assignment records into its legal status database. When the project is finished US patents in esp@cenet will be linked to more than six million assignments dating back to 1981. Assignment data has been available for some US docs in esp@cenet, but much of the data was corrupted by technical problems. I assume that this includes all the data available on the USPTO's web assignment database and Cassis ASSIGN, although both give a slightly earlier start date of August 1980.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Nortel's Patent Plum

Nortel Networks, one of Canada's leading telecommunication technology companies during the 20th century, is bankrupt and in the process of selling off its assets, including its hefty portfolio of thousands of patents and other intellectual property. This week a high profile spat broke out between two rival bidders, Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, and mobile phone giant Ericsson. Nationalism is partly to blame (RIM is a Canadian company) but also at issue is the fate of Nortel's patents. RIM is keen get Nortel's patents related to wireless LTE technology.

By rough count, Nortel's patent portfolio includes more than 3,500 granted U.S. patents, some 760 published patent applications, and approximately 1,000 Canadian patents and pending applications. Thousands more were granted under its former name, Northern Electric Co., which it officially changed in the early 1990s. This is probably one of the largest patent firesales in history.

Class 310 Reorganized

The USPTO has reorganized Class 310: Electrical Generator or Motor Structure. Details are provided in Classification Order #1887. Class 310, which was created in 1953, is a bit atypical in that it is a residual class intended to cover technology related to electrical generator or motor structure not classified elsewhere. Which means that searchers may need to consult other related electrical and mechanical classes.

There are currently about 65,000 patents and 13,000 published applications classified in Class 310.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

One Giant Step for Mankind? Moon Ads?

While the world celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first manned-mission to the moon, an entrepreneur in Utah wants to patent a system for creating ads on the moon.

David Jones, owner of Moon Publicity of West Valley City, Utah, has filed a U.S. provisional application for "Shadow Shaping," a system that uses robotic vehicles to carve product names, logos and web URLs into the surface of the moon. The serial number of the application is 61/150,054, which means that it was probably filed in October or November of 2008. Jones has one year to file a regular patent application based on his provisional. Provisional applications are not published, so it may be more than a year before the world gets to see the details of his invention.

Inventions relating to advertising are generally classified in Class 40, Card, Picture or Sign Exhibiting. This includes skywriting and ground advertisements designed to be seen from aircraft.

Patent Models on Display at Harvard

Harvard University's Science Center has a new exhibit of 19th century American patent models. The exhibit, which is called "Patent Republic," is on display until December and features about 75 patent models from the collection of Susan M. E. Glendening, a New York collector.

From 1836 to 1880, The U.S. Patent Office required inventors to submit a model of their inventions with their patent applications. The models were kept on public display at the Patent Office and became a popular tourist attraction. By the 1870s, however, maintaining the collection, which had grown to hundreds of thousands of models, became a serious burden on the office. Some 87,000 models were destroyed by fire in 1877. In the 1890s, the Patent Office began placing models in storage and eventually the office disposed of the collection, with several thousand models going to the Smithsonian Institution and the families of inventors. The rest were sold or discarded.

Patent models were required in other countries during the 19th century, but most had abandoned the practice by 1900. In Canada, patent models were no longer required after 1892, although the Commissioner of Patents reserved the right to request a model. Some countries continued to require models for certain types of inventions. Germany, for example, required models for firearms and skates and Switzerland required models for firearms and watch movements.

Patent models are highly prized by some collectors. In 1979, Cliff Petersen, a retired engineer, bought about 35,000 models with the intent of establishing a museum. In addition to the Glendening collection, other privately-owned patent model collections include the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum, which contains some 4,000 models obtained from the Petersen estate.

See also "Patent Models Strange Odyssey" by Theresa Riordan, New York Times, Feb. 18, 2002.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Patent Statistics and Economic Development: Pros and Cons

Patent attorney Stephen Nipper and fellow blogger Chris Blanchard make some interesting comments on the use and misuse of patent statistics as measures of economic development and technological innovation. Both point to the case of Idaho, which in recent years has been ranked #1 in patents per capita thanks to the presence of Micron and HP, two patent powerhouses, in Boise.

I agree that patent statistics, like most statistical measures, can be misleading. In Canada, for example, tiny Yukon, pop. 31,000, ranks #1 in patents per capita, compared to the more populous and industralized provinces of Alberta (3.2 million), Ontario (12.5 million) and Quebec (7.5 million). Blanchard argues that patent statistical outliers like Yukon should be omitted or at least accounted for in economic development studies.

Nipper and Blanchard's criticism is a valid one, but I think it's wrong to completely dismiss patents as a useful (but indirect) measure of economic development. A large number of patents issued to a particular region or city might suggest a large population of highly educated engineers or successful independent inventors. For example, inventor Solly Angel, author of The Tale of the Scale, used patent statistics to decide what city might offer the best support network for a first-time inventor. He settled on New York because of its high concentration of patent attorneys, inventors, consulting engineers and suppliers.

Most patent offices publish annual patent statistics. The USPTO also publishes numerous reports on patent activity by organization, technology and geographic area. The WIPO collects and publishes patent statistics from around the world.