The most significant obstacle to achieving patent breadth in contemporary patent law lies in the Federal Circuit’s proclivity to import imitations from the specification into the claims. The Court justifies its actions as merely discerning the inventor’s intent to limit the invention. The most effective counter to that activity is claim differentiation—the concept that claims are presumed to have different meanings, so a limitation expressly present in one claim should not be read into another claim, particularly where the narrower claim is dependent upon the broader. The Federal Circuit’s formulation of that rule was well stated in SRI Int’l v. Matsushita Elec. Corp.: “It is settled law that when a patent claim does not contain a certain limitation and another claim does, that limitation cannot be read into the former claim in determining either validity or infringement.”
Courts often express this principle in terms of avoiding claim redundancy. The Phillips court faced that question in dealing with steel-shell panels that can be welded together to form vandalism-resistant walls. The broadest claim included a limitation “internal steel baffles extending inwardly from the steel shell walls.” The court was required to determine exactly what characteristics were implicit in the term “baffles,” and one technique employed for that purpose was an examination of the other claims. For example, dependent Claim 6 recited, “the internal baffles of both outer panel sections overlap and interlock at angles providing deflector panels extending from one end of the module to the other.” “If the baffles recited in claim 1 were inherently placed at specific angles,” the court reasoned, “claim 6 would be redundant.” Thus, a construction of Claim 1 that included a specific angle would be improper, based on the doctrine of claim differentiation.
Recent Federal Circuit reasoning should make a patent drafter decidedly averse to single-embodiment patent applications, with good reason. Unfortunately, real-world constraints, principally centering on budget and time issues, have resulted and probably will continue to result in the production of a large number of applications in which multiple embodiments either do not exist or do not justify the time and effort to include them in a patent application.
One need not completely panic at the thought, however. Although multiple embodiments certainly should be included whenever possible, techniques are available to provide breadth beyond the minimal terms of a single embodiment. Reading the cases discussed above, it should become clear that the patents involved there not only disclosed single embodiment, but they generally failed to suggest that the claims should cover more territory than the minimal features of the disclosed embodiment. In most instances, the addition of a few sentences would have completely cured the cited problems.
Patent terminology can be daunting at times, making it quite unapproachable for a novice inventor to understand what is really going on and what options are available in terms of filing a patent application. Take for example the various types of national patent applications that one can file. A national patent application means a U.S. application for patent that was either filed in the Patent Office under 35 U.S.C. 111 (i.e., directly with the USPTO as a domestic U.S. patent application), or which entered the national stage from an international patent application after compliance with 35 U.S.C. 371 (i.e., initially filed as an international application invoking the benefits of the Patent Cooperation Treaty).
Drafting a patent application is not easy. A patent application needs to describe your invention completely, and if you really are entitled to a patent then at least some aspect of your invention is new and non-obvious, which means that heretofore it hasn’t existed. Describing something new that has not previously existed if more of a challenge than most people realize.
Many times inventors fail to adequately describe their inventions because the invention is obvious to them, and they think it will be equally obvious to others. The law, however, requires that a patent application explain the invention to someone who is not already familiar with the invention. One of the best way to do this is to explain it like a child explains things when doing a show and tell at school. Children explain everything in excruciating detail, no matter how obvious. Kids do this when they describe things because they have no idea what the person listening knows, and to them it is new and interesting so they explain everything with tremendous detail (whether you want to hear it or not). That is exactly what you need to do in the application. Explain your invention with so much detail that you will bore the knowledgeable reader to death.
That is all fine and well, but how do you explain your invention? Here are five things to keep in mind that are critical in order to fully and completely describe your invention. Thoughtful consideration of these will help you better articulate what you have that is unique in a way that will satisfy legal requirements in the United States.
In order for any patent application to be complete the invention must be described with great particularity. Many times an inventor will only generally describe the invention in a patent application, which creates a significant problem.
This problem recently presented itself to me when an inventor provided me with an extremely vague description of their invention and wanted me to do a patent search and prepare a provisional patent application. I explained to the inventor that I needed much more detailed information. The inventor told me that he supplied plenty of information and was not going to supply any more because he wanted to keep the description very general. That is, of course, his right, but a general description is a recipe for failure. I declined representation. I don’t need those type of headaches.
This interaction is more common than you might think. Inventors not only frequently think they know more about patents than a patent attorney, but inventors also frequently think it is best to have the broadest most vague description of an invention possible. Conceptually a general description may seem best, but if you have any knowledge of U.S. patent law you realize that general, non-informative and vague descriptions are unacceptable. The law simply requires more.
The patent process actually starts well before you file a patent application or seek assistance from a patent attorney. Every patent application starts with an invention, and every invention starts with an idea. While ideas are not patentable, there will be a point in time when the idea you are working on comes into vision with enough detail to cross what I call the idea / invention boundary. To have a protectable invention you have to be able to describe it with enough detail so that someone of skill in the relevant technical field can understand how to both make and use the invention. Once you can do that, or once the patent attorney or patent agent you hire can, you are ready to file a patent application. If you are struggling at the idea phase please see Turning Your Idea into an Invention and Moving from Idea to Patent.
The first step in the patent process should really be a patent search. Doing a patent search is the only way to get a realistic idea about whether the invention is likely able to be protected. There is nothing wrong with inventors doing their own preliminary search, and in fact that is very useful task. SeePatent Searching 101. At some point as your project proceeds you should have a professional patent search done. Only with a professional patent search will you really discover everything that can be found. Just like a novice in your field would make mistakes, as a novice patent searcher won’t find everything that can be found, including many things that really need to be considered during the drafting stage of a patent application. After all, the whole point of a patent application is to articulate how the invention is unique. How can you do that without a comprehensive knowledge of what exists in the prior art?
In many cases, if not most cases, a patent search will suggest that at patent could be obtained. The critical question, however, is not whether a patent can be obtained, but rather whether a useful patent can be obtained. If you layer on enough specifics to any invention you will cross the point where the patent examiner will say your invention is new and non-obvious. But a patent that has such narrow claims is hardly useful for anything other than framing and hanging on the wall.
It is not uncommon for inventors to want to attempt to draft and file patent applications on their own, and I frequently get asked about sample patent applications. Here is where you as an inventor need to make a critical choice, and making a thoughtfully considered business decision is fine, but fooling yourself into believing that you can and will do as good a job as a patent professional is an enormous mistake.
I cringe at times because some inventors will make a reckless choice, or choose to represent themselves because they think you can do as well as a patent attorney who has dedicated their entire career to mastery of the art. It is true that the cost of hiring an attorney to draft a patent application can price inventors out of the market, and in that case inventors are left with no real choice, or so it seems. Either you do nothing and simply don’t pursue patent rights, or you have to do something on your own that is within your budget.
If paying a patent attorney is out of the question because of lack of funding you would serve yourself well to sit down and carefully go over your budget (which all inventors should do) and ask whether you have the financial resources and abilities to pull off the project. Inventing, patenting and making money by commercializing does not come cheap, and if you have few resources you might be better off building your savings so you can appropriately pursue your inventions in the future. If you are truly an inventor you are creative and, trust me, there will be many inventions in your future. Rarely in my experience does an inventor have only one idea/invention. Creative people create, which means it can be particularly important to manage your budget wisely. Carelessly pursuing one invention and recklessly spending funds can make it difficult, if not impossible, to move forward when you find the truly great idea/invention.
During the summer months, beaches are major tourist destinations across the country. Americans take almost two billion trips to beaches every yearand spend billions in beach communities, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection agency. All of these beach visitors look for a variety of ways to enjoy their time near or in the water.
Today in IPWatchdog’s continuing Summer 2013 Fun series, we want to look at some very intriguing patent applications and issued patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office regarding fun at the beach. A number of these documents describe active games for many participants that involve a lot of physical activity. One issued patent protects a safe game for young children who rush out to plant a flag in the coast while avoiding incoming waves. Another issued patent describes a portable tennis court for beach use.
Three other patent applications featured here encourage more passive forms of play and recreation. A first application would protect a style of beach golf where players can easily build a small course. Another patent application describes a portable beach toy kit that builds a more complete play environment, including a castle and a moat. Finally, we take a look at a patent application that would protect a board for a seashell collection game.
With droves of people flocking to the beach, the role of the beach lifeguard becomes much more important. According to the United States Lifesaving Association, which certifies open water lifeguards, USLA lifeguards completed a total of 69,070 rescues during 2012, about half of which were rip current rescues. USLA lifeguards also completed a total of 307,893 medical aids during that year.
Today in IPWatchdog’s 2013 Summer Fun series, we’re taking a look at patents that recognize the importance of safety at the pool or beach. A number of patent applications and issued patents published by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office that we feature in today’s column describe systems and tools to aid lifeguards in their work. One patent application explains a buoy system that can wrangle multiple distressed swimmers and provide them with a flotation line. One issued patent protects a rescue tube with a recessed extension strap for safer use. A second issued patent protects a system of detecting rip tides through computer analysis of video.
Two other documents we’re discussing here create safety systems for swimmers when there are no lifeguards present, or if a lifeguard can’t detect a problem. One issued patent is for an alarm system that sounds if it detects that a swimmer is in danger. Finally, one last issued patent discusses an emergency contact system for putting poolside rescuers who aren’t trained to react to emergencies in touch with emergency personnel.
For many summer weather enthusiasts, this time of year is the best for getting out on the water and surfing the largest waves they can find. Surfboards have been around since the 1940s and have grown in popularity as a summer pastime in coastal areas.
Today in IPWatchdog’s Summer 2013 Fun series, in honor of the ongoing U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, California, we’re featuring some of the most interesting new patent applications and issued patents related to surfing. Some of these newly devised innovations are designed to help a surfer save their physical energy. One patent application describes a new powered surfboard with a detachable chair for riding far out into a body of water. Another issued patent protects an attachable hard edge that can improve the performance of inflatable surfboards, which are easier to transport. A new four-pointed tail design from a patent application would improve a surfer’s speed and control on the water.