Every inventor has, at one time or another, had the moment where all seems lost. Every avenue that could possibly yield a fruitful alleyway towards profitability has been trodden, and each industry contact that could potentially offer a path towards success has been contacted. The item that began as a simple idea, was built into a homemade prototype, and was eventually turned into a real product by a professional design firm, has not gotten the interest from the industry that had been dreamed of. This realization can be a serious cause for grief for those who have spent countless hours defining and tweaking their product, building relationships with designers, patent attorneys, industry insiders, and other inventors, and still have not achieved their ultimate goal of successfully bringing their product to market. These periods of time can be difficult, as it can feel like you are saying goodbye to a friend that has brought you so much hope, and joy throughout the development process.
Who holds the patent on gravity? Who collects the royalties for the speed of light? In this episode of IP Goes Pop!, Volpe Koenig Shareholders and podcasts hosts, Michael Snyder and Joseph Gushue, explore what intellectual property (trade secrets, trademarks, patents and copyrights) cannot protect. Hint- some things excluded from IP protection include the Laws of Nature such as gravity, the speed of light and even Einstein’s theory of relativity E=MC2. Abstract ideas are another. But what other “can’t”s stand between you, your idea, and protections for it?
Earlier this month, IP diversity advocacy group Invent Together announced that it had launched an online learning platform known as The Inventor’s Patent Academy (TIPA), an e-learning course designed in collaboration with Qualcomm to educate inventors from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds about the benefits of engaging with the U.S. patent system. This online academy is the latest of several efforts by Congress and patent system stakeholders in recent years to unlock the innovative potential of women, people of color, LGBTQIA, and low-income inventors to benefit the U.S. economy.
The question that we receive most frequently from inventors, usually independent inventors, relates to whether a provisional patent application can be refiled with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Before giving the correct answer, it is critically important for everyone to understand that if a provisional patent application is refiled it may become impossible for a patent to ever be obtained, period. Can a provisional patent application be refiled? The short, easy answer to the question is yes, of course you can refile the provisional application. The USPTO will be happy to have you refile the application, take your filing fee, and send you a new filing receipt. The problem for you, as an inventor, however, is the consequence of refiling a provisional application. So, while it may be very easy to do, and seem like you’ve just extended the life of your original provisional application, that is precisely NOT what has happened, and you may have – indeed likely have – made it impossible to ever obtain a patent anywhere in the world.
On September 2, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia issued a decision granting a Motion for Summary Judgment for the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and upholding the Office’s view that AI algorithms cannot be listed as inventors on U.S. patents. The court pointed to the Administrative Procedures Act’s (APA’s) strong deference to final agency decisions, barring any egregious errors. DABUS generated outputs corresponding to (1) a fractal design for food container surfaces that may help prevent stacked containers from sticking together and (2) a technique for controlling the timing of flashing warning lights to help attract attention. Dr. Stephen Thaler (DABUS’s creator and owner) filed patent applications on these inventions that were filed around the world, listing Thaler as the applicant and listing only DABUS as the inventor.
With South Africa’s patent office having recently granted the first patent to an AI inventor, and an Australian court ruling in favor of AI inventorship, it’s time to review how we got here—and where we’re going. The number of artificial intelligence (AI) patent applications received annually by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) grew from 30,000 in 2002 to more than 60,000 in 2018. Further, the USPTO has issued thousands of inventions that utilize AI. According to a 2020 study titled “AI Trends Based on the Patents Granted by the USPTO”, the total number of AI-related patents granted by the USPTO per year increased from 4,598 in 2008 to 20,639 in 2018. If AI-related patent applications and grants are on the uptick, what was the problem with DABUS?
Twenty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that plants could be protected with utility patents. J.E.M. Ag Supply, Inc., v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. 534 U.S. 124 (2001). Forty-one years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that living organisms were patentable. Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (19080). Before these landmark cases, plants and living matter were not protectable with patents. The rationale of the Supreme Court in J.E.M. and Chakrabarty supports patent protection for inventions by non-humans, i.e., artificial intelligence inventors.
Every patent practitioner has faced the same obstacle — a client’s application is assigned to an unfamiliar art unit. This presents two challenges: unfamiliarity with the examiners and unfamiliarity with the application of the law. Here are three proven arguments that overcame Section 101 rejections in AU 3668 from which to draw inspiration.
Design patents provide powerful protections both on their own and as a complement to their more well-known cousin, utility patents. The highly publicized Apple v. Samsung lawsuits of the previous decade featured both design and utility patents, and revitalized public awareness of design patents in general. In fact, it was infringement of the design patents that resulted in the large damages awards in those litigations, with three design patents resulting in an award of $533.3 million and two utility patents only $5.3 million. Beyond the likelihood of greater money damages, as compared to their utility patent counterparts design patents are also less expensive to obtain and hold, offer simpler determinations of infringement and validity, and are less susceptible to being invalidated (whether, e.g., for non-patent eligible subject matter or via a post-grant procedure). As such, design patents are more likely to survive, potentially resulting in substantial damages for the patent holder.
If you are an inventor new to inventing, you undoubtedly believe you’ve come up with an idea, or two or three, that could really be successful. That eternal optimism and belief in one’s self is precisely what every inventor needs to succeed. Now, if you are like the so many others who have walked in your footsteps before you, you’ve probably started researching how to patent an idea but have quickly become bombarded with information from a variety of sources. “I have no clue where to start, and I have only a limited budget,” is a typical new inventor question. “What should be my first step?” The patent process can be complex and knowing where to begin and how to approach the process in a cost-responsible manner is not always easy, particularly for first time inventors. Of course, before proceeding it is worth first asking why it is you want a patent? The road to invention riches may, or may not, include obtaining a patent, although at least filing a provisional patent application can be and usually is a wise first step for a variety of reasons.
About a month ago, Steve Brachmann authored an article concerned with a brief given to Capitol Hill staff by Professors Frakes and Wasserman. The article highlighted fundamental, as well as practical, problems with Professors Frakes’ and Wasserman’s proposal (i.e. doubling the number of patent examiners as a means to reduce the number of invalid patents and thereby prevent societal harms) and how it could be detrimental to the U.S. patent system. The IPWatchdog article points to several issues with Frakes’ and Wasserman’s proposal, but does not discuss other approaches or options, such as using artificial intelligence tools to improve the patent application review process—an option that USPTO Commissioner for Patents Drew Hirshfeld said in a recent Senate IP Subcommittee hearing that the Office is actively pursuing. According to PWC, 72% of executives testify that AI improves internal operations while freeing up workers to perform more creative and meaningful tasks. In fact, while some might fear that “robots” will take human jobs, technological innovation has been proven to generate more jobs than it takes, while automating tasks, like patent search.
In order to obtain exclusive rights on an invention, you must file for and obtain a patent. Many inventors will initially opt to file a provisional patent application to initiate the application process, which is a perfectly reasonable decision to make, and will result in a “patent pending” that can even result in a licensing deal. Ultimately, if a patent is desired, a nonprovisional patent application must be filed, and it is this nonprovisional patent application that will mature into an issued patent. U.S. patent laws require that the patent applicant particularly point out and distinctly claim the subject matter which the inventor regards as his or her invention. Any patent, or patent application, contains a variety of different sections that contain different information. Generally speaking, a patent is divided into a specification, drawings and patent claims. Only the patent claims define the exclusive right granted to the patent applicant; the rest of the patent is there to facilitate understanding of the claimed invention. Therefore, patent claims are in many respects the most important part of the patent application because it is the claims that define the invention for which the Patent Office has granted protection.
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 so into focus with enough detail that it will cross the idea / invention boundary. It is when an idea matures to the point of being concrete and tangible enough to be described to another that the idea has become an invention, at least in general terms.
Too often, engineering companies are in such a race to come up with the next big thing that they forget to consider the crucial step following their grand discoveries or inventions: patent protection. If a business is willing to spend years developing products and a considerable amount of money marketing, then it only makes sense to follow through and protect the accomplishment. Yet, many (unintentionally) don’t. Below are five risky ways tech companies often jeopardize their intellectual property rights, sometimes even before a product has been developed.
One of the more dramatic moments in my $20 million dollar patent brawl occurred in the pivotal preliminary injunction hearing at the courthouse in downtown Tyler, Texas. I learned that Walmart was coming to monitor the proceedings. I think they were curious to meet the crazy inventor who dared to sue the largest retailer on the planet. The proposal on the table was that I dismiss the suit with prejudice (i.e., drop the suit and waive all my rights) or else Walmart would never buy another product from my exclusive licensee, Zuru—no balloons, no robotic fish, no dart guns. Distraught, I hid in a side room and didn’t show for the meeting where my lawyers had advised me to capitulate. Curiosity heightened; the Walmart attorney unexpectedly suspended all demands and invited me to sit down and explain my point of view. I pointed to the infringing spiral-faced Battle Balloons and told her they were selling my invention without permission, thereby harming me and my family. The Walmart attorney was flummoxed and suggested that I didn’t understand how the patent system worked and was overreaching. Here I was claiming to have invented this apparatus that looked different than mine. It had a spiral face and mine was flat. This is the problem with our patent system; it is run by people who don’t understand invention. Think about it, we have to use this bizarre legal document not only to describe our discovery but to describe the boundaries of it. For inventors, there are no boundaries—why would we stop applying and extending our discoveries? We do our best to describe it, but in the end, non-inventors write and interpret the laws that determine our rights.