Viewing posts from the patents category

The Ever-Moving World of Stationery

Inventions don’t have to be big and complicated. Fortunes have been made from really simple things. In fact, if you want to make a large sum of money, one way is to invent something that people need to use every day – even if it’s a little thing. Simplicity isn’t as easy as it looks. One way that you can tell a great, simple invention is “Well that’s so obvious! I could have thought of that!’ To which, the obvious reply is, “Well, why didn’t you?” But the thing about elegant simplicity is that it’s also easy to copy, once it’s been invented, so if you do come up with an elegant, simple invention, it’s critical that you protect your idea with the appropriate patent, preferably with the help of a good patent lawyer.

One area where inventions of elegant simplicity have been highlighted has been in the world of stationery. Stationary can be boring and mundane, but it’s unarguably useful, and it’s a lot more useful than it used to be because of some key inventions.
Take the paperclip. First patented in 1867 (US 64 088), by Samuel B Fay, this clip was designed to attach paper tickets to fabrics although Fay also noted that the clip could be used to attach paper to paper.

 paperclips  1

As you can see. It doesn’t look much like the paperclips that we’re more used to. In fact, in the early days of paper clips, dozens were patented. But the one that stuck, the one that won the evolutionary paper clip arms race was the Gem Paper Clip.

 paperclips  2

This paper clip was invented by William D. Middlebrook, of Waterbury Connecticut in 1899 (US 636 272). Middlebrook was smart enough to patent not only the clip itself but the machine that made it. Middlebrook later sold his patents to an office supply company called Cushman and Denison in 1899, and that company trademarked the name in 1904. As an interesting sideline, also in 1899, a Norwegian called Johann Vaaler patented his own paperclip design in Germany (because Norway had no patent laws at the time) and was later granted a US patent in 1901. Historical facts notwithstanding, Norwegians embraced Vaaler as the true father of the paperclip, to the point that it has become an enduring symbol of national pride. This pride came to the fore during the Nazi occupation of Norway. The Nazi’s had forbidden Norwegians to use buttons, as those buttons typically had an image of the Norwegian King. So the Norwegians started wearing paper clips to their lapels as a show of unity. The Nazi’s would arrest them for wearing paperclips anyway, but the syballpoint on.
But whether political or practical, the power of the practical simplicity of the paper clip lives on.

Another deceptively simple design is the ball point pen, designed to be an improvement on pens dipped in ink in wells and fountain pens (first patented in the late 1820s and commercially developed around Birmingham in the UK in the 1850s). The idea of the ballpoint had been around for some time since the late 1800s, but the first patent wasn’t issued until 1888 to John J. Loud, who worked as a bank teller in Massachusetts (what is the it about New England and stationery invention?). Unfortunately, Loud never went any further with his idea, which, in any case had been designed to make marks on leather.
The problem with the ballpoint wasn’t so much the idea, but technical limitations having to do with ink-flow, delivery and smudging. Then along came Laslo Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor who realised that newspaper inks dried quickly and were smudge-free. Biro’s key insight was to design his ballpoint around the ink. Fortunately, Laslo’s brother was a chemist, and Gyory Biro developed an ink with the right properties. Biro filed a British patent on 15 June 1938. Then, fleeing the Nazis (what is it about WWII and stationery?), the Biro brothers set up a company in Argentina, where they licensed their pens to the British, who found the pens to be particularly useful in warplanes flying at altitudes where fountain pens tended to leak.
Then along came American Entrepreneur Milton Reynolds, who purchased several Biros and then reversed engineered them, making enough design alterations to obtain a US patent. Reynolds worked quickly, beating other competitors to the market with speed of production and aggressive marketing to justify the heavy price tag of the equivalent of over $150.00 at the time. Reynolds success was short-lived though. Competitors such as Paper Mate came in with new ink formulas and Parker Pens came in with tungsten-carbide ball bearings. Then Italian-French pen entrepreneur Marcel Bich bought Biro’s patent in 1953 for $2 million and the Biro, or the Bic (pending on where you come from) really took off when the BIC Crystal Pen combined use-ability with disposability. The rest is stationery history. In September 2006 BIC sold it’s 100 BILLIONTH ballpoint pen. A piece of stationery so iconic an example is on permanent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
There are lessons to be learned for the inventor here. It’s not just enough to have a good idea. You have to make it commercially viable and if that isn’t your strength, you can at least find someone who has the necessary resources and skillset. Even if you don’t at least protect your investment. Biro probably did not regret selling out to BIC for the equivalent of around $50 million US in today’s money.
At least, Biro had the foresight to have a patent.


Some of the Most Interesting Inventions of 2017

As the year draws to its inexorable close we start asking ourselves, “Well, what was THAT all about?” No doubt this is a question that inventors seeking to patent their work and that patent attorneys in Sydney, New York, London and everywhere else are asking themselves too.

Some of these inventions have made it to the next level and are now out in the world, being sold to customers who, hopefully, have had their lives slightly improved for having had such wonderful devices introduced to them.

Here are some highlights:

Earbuds by Doppler Labs

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Microprocessors and sound technology have now come to a point where sound coming into earbuds can be manipulated almost instantaneously, allowing you to cancel out the sound of a baby wailing, or boosting the sound of a friend’s voice in a noisy party.

Self-Cleaning Material from RMIT

Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology have come up with a fabric that cleans itself when exposed to sunlight.

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Nanostructures made from silver and copper heat up, breaking down stains until they just fall away. Think of the water to be saved! All Melbourne needs now is more days with sunlight.

The Ricoh Theta S and V Cameras

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A single image doesn’t really do it justice but the Ricoh Theta S and V cameras can take 360-degree pictures. There are video options too as well as 360-degree audio. Now selfies can be even more annoying when 180 degrees isn’t enough.

Even Kodak is making a comeback with:

The Kodak Pixpro Orbit 360 4K …

… which takes 4K quality photos but is so small (approximately 6cm x 6 cm x 7 cm) and light (approximately 160 gm with battery and SD card) that it can be mounted on a drone to take some really dramatic shots.

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But it’s not all electronics and nanotech.

Bridgestone Airless Tires

Bridgestone developed an airless car tire back in 2011.

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They have now followed up the idea with an airless bicycle tire

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And now too, at last, we have a scuba tank, for spending up to 10 minutes underwater, that can be refilled with a bicycle pump, thanks to Scorkl:

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This Kickstarter campaign from a group in Melbourne, set out to get $30,000 and wound up getting almost $1.3 million.

But it’s not all about cool, first world self-indulgence and convenience. One of the more elegant inventions to come out this year also comes from Australia.

The Utility Barrow …

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… is a simple, moulded plastic barrow that’s buoyant and stable enough to stay afloat even when carrying people. A real boon to the 94 million people (many of whom live in developing nations) who are in some way affected by flooding each year.


Keeping Up Our Collective Cool

Summer is here again, at least in the Southern Hemisphere. And with summer comes heat and with heat comes the desire to be cool, humans being the contrary creatures that we are.

Time to turn on the air conditioner, but did you know that the air conditioner was originally invented not to keep people cool, but to keep cotton cool? It seems that back in the bad old days of early industrialised mass cotton production humidity and heat in the (literal) sweatshops made the cotton difficult to process in machinery, so Willis Carrier created a machine (U.S. Patent 808 897 – 2 Jan 1906) that cooled, dried, circulated and cleaned the air so that the wheels and sheets of industry could run smoother. Having more comfortable workers was just a side-effect, a side-effect that is now a multi-billion-dollar a year industry. The air conditioner was a big improvement on the ceiling fan, or a slave holding a fan made of ostrich feathers and fanning a sheet of wet gauze.

But why should the invention of a reasonably effective and efficient cooling system stop some of the more imaginative and entrepreneurial inventors from coming up with more creative solutions to the problem of over-heating, solutions that have to be patented with patents managed by equally creative intellectual property lawyers and solicitors?

After all, there are lots of situations where air conditioning is neither feasible, practical or even possible.

Of course, cooling people is a priority. One way is directly, as through air-conditioning. Another way is indirectly, by cooling drinks or food.

One smart way to do this was with a self-cooling beverage cooler (US 5983662 A – 16 Nov 1999):

It’s basically a cylinder within a cylinder. The inner skin that holds a can of drink is sponge-like and gets soaked in water. Air circulates through holes in the outer skin, drying the water. As the water evaporates, it takes the heat with it. It’s sort of like a reverse-thermos.

The same principle applies to this simple, and slightly stranger invention, the Evaporative Cooling Cap.

Why, I hear you ask, would you spend $30 on a cap when you can buy one for just a couple of bucks and soak it yourself? The answer lies in the fabric inner liner, which is patented, no doubt because the fabric allows for slow evaporation of the water over a period of five hours.

Given that a cap might not be enough when you’re out and about, you might want to consider a wearable air conditioner (US 5 201 365 – 13 Apr 1993)

Yes, it looks bulky and ridiculous, but it works on similar principles to your home refrigerator, using a low boiling-point refrigerant (in this case, water under vacuum) to suck up excess heat.

And after a day of avoiding over heating you can continue to beat the heat this time in bed, using a chill pillow.

Why, I hear you ask, would you spend $250.00 on a pillow when you could just buy a gel pack for $5.00 and cool any part of your anatomy of your choice? These are questions that inventors need to ask themselves before they invest in developing and then patenting their inventions.

And yet, for all the advances in cooling people cooling machinery is still a priority and tends to attract somewhat less redundant solutions.

Seven and a half million patents after Robert Carrier, Apple have decided that conventional fans are not good enough because they are bulky, energy-hungry and somewhat inefficient – all big no-nos when you’re making machines ever sleaker and ecologically sound. So with U.S. Patent 8 305 728 – 6 Nov 2012) their “Ionic Wind Generator” uses atomic physics for cooling.

Electronic parts generate electro-magnetic fields that in turn, charge or ionise the air around them. Apple’s cooler takes advantage of that charged air to force the air away from the components in a way similar to when you’ve got two magnets with the same pole repelling each other. The result is that as the charged air gets repelled is creates an airflow where you need it, when you need it, which is really clever when you think about it.

It’s a shame that you can’t use the same principle around people.


To Infinity and Beyond

It might seem paradoxical, but some things that seem possible but difficult, like flying cars, are actually very, very difficult and close to impossible, while other things, seem horrendously difficult but are actually more possible, like spaceships. The evidence of this is that there have been far more spaceships – practical, useable spaceships – built than flying cars. Nevertheless, the design of spaceships is rocket science and because they are hugely intricate things there are literally millions of patents associated with the various aspects of spaceships.

Space agencies, like NASA, have billions of dollars of resources to throw at spaceships, but that hasn’t stopped enterprising (no pun intended) and dedicated amateur inventors from seeking to protect their inspirations with a well-thought out and expressed patent, helped along, no doubt, by a specialist patent attorney or intellectual property lawyer.

Some of these patents are more frivolous perhaps than others, while others still are very serious, like this one from NASA engineers Josef F. Blumrich and Carl A. Loy dating from the late 1960s.

US 3 304 724 – Space Vehicle Tank Construction

Because rocket science implies that you’ll inevitably be involved in the design of rockets.

And this one from the same era:

US 3 443 773 – Docking Structure for Spacecraft

After all, you’ve got to park your spaceships somewhere, right?

The rocket idea eventually evolved into the idea of a detachable rocket mounted onto a reusable spacecraft – The Space Shuttle. And if you ever wondered what the patent for it looks like, it looks like this one from 1975:

US 3 866 863 – Space Shuttle

And we all know how that turned out – amazing success followed by two very tragic disasters.

But rockets and shuttles aren’t enough for some people, and why should they be? Chemical propulsion might be practical and possible and of course, dangerous, but it isn’t nearly as glamorous as more imaginative technology, and since the 1960s and 1970s we’ve come a long way, baby.

Even in the early 1990s, some people were thinking outside the rocket box:

US 5305974 A – Spaceship Propulsion by Momentum Transfer

It doesn’t look like much. It doesn’t even look like a spaceship, but in principle, it involves propelling the ship by throwing things at it. Imagine moving a sailboat by hitting the sail with balls ejected from a tennis ball machine and you get the picture.

But the “sail” idea isn’t just an example. The concept has been floating around for quite some time. The solar sail uses solar wind to propel a spaceship, like this one from 1986.

US 4614319 – Solar Sail

Again, it doesn’t look like much. The patent is a little vague on details and minor technical points like the fact that the materials that are strong enough to make it viable didn’t actually exist at the time and barely exits now, but details, details …

But why stop there? Why not go way, way out to the fringes of technology like this patent from 2006:

US – 20 060 145 019 A1 – Triangular Spacecraft

… which, inventor John St. Clair claims, generates a “horizontal electric field”, and a “plane wave” which “generates a force per volume providing a unique combination of both lift and propulsion”.

The patent description provides some impressive looking physics, with lines like:

E ϕ ( ρ , ϕ ) = – 1 ρ ∂ Φ ∂ ϕ = – π   a 1 β ρ ( π / β ) – 1 cos ( πϕ / β )

We know what you’re thinking. If such impressive technology exists and works, why aren’t we all flying around in these things? It’s probably been suppressed by oil cartels who want to keep us all dependent on explosive chemicals until the oil runs out, or the greenhouse effect really kicks in, whichever comes first.

That’s what we’re thinking.


Up, Up and No Way

The history of invention, like the history of evolution, is one of amazing successes and spectacular failures. Just like the rest of life, invention failure far outnumbers the successes. For every poppy seed that turns into a flower zillions more end up decorating breads and bagels.
And some areas of invention are even higher risk and more fraught with potential failures than others. But inventors are, on the whole, glass-half full people with no end of optimism that their inventions will actually not only work, but be commercially successful. In many cases optimism does triumph, in spite of the odds, so with that in mind it’s sensible to look for patent protection, whether in Australia or anywhere else.
One such area of high risk is The Flying Car. Ever since the Wright Brothers successfully created controlled powered flight in 1903, and Henry Ford made a dazzling commercial success of the Model T car in 1908, visionary sectors of the population have wondered about the potentially awesome potential of a plane that could double as a car, or a car that could double as a plane.
But “Flying Car” is easier said than done. The laws of physics dictate that a plane has to be light and powerful, but it also takes up a lot of room and is difficult to park at a kerbside in a city street. A car has to be practical and strong, so that it doesn’t crumble to pieces if someone prangs you in a parking lot.
It’s not until relatively recently that materials have been developed that are light enough and strong enough, and that improvements to engines have made them powerful enough for the Flying Car to be a practical reality.
But that hasn’t stopped inventors from trying for the best part of a century anyway.
Here’s one from the late 1950s and early 1960s:

US 3090519A – Flying Car

With what seems like only a passing acquaintance with aerodynamics, inventor Einar Einarsson’s design seems to rely on the whole car body being some sort of wing. The patent description says that propellers are “removable” and presumably stored in the trunk. Likewise the “fins” are bolted on and also removable, but it’s doubtful that they would provide even the most cursory amount of lift or controllability. In all the thing looks like the Thunderbirds adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and has about as much chance of getting off the ground as any of the vehicles depicted in the TV program or the movie. Research fails to reveal any hint that even a prototype of this car was built.
Fast forward 50 years to this design from 2003:

US 67495977 – Flying Car

No one says that a “flying car” has to be an aeroplane hybrid. This design takes its inspiration more from helicopter, or even hovercraft principles, than from fixed-wing planes.

Optimism suggests that it could fly, or at least get off the ground, but it’s hard to imagine how it could be controlled. The other big negative is its size. Note that it only seats three, but it’s about as long, and as wide as a medium size truck. Parking would be a nightmare – not to mention the noise that helicopter and hovercraft-type vehicles are notorious for.
But it’s not all madness, maybe. Rumours have been circulating for years that Japanese car manufacturing giant Toyota have been investigating the flying car but admits that such a thing is still “years away”. But that hasn’t stopped Chinese company Terrafugia from creating what it claims to be the world’s first practical flying car – The Transition.
A picture, or in this case three pictures, tell a thousand words:

Place your orders now. They’re a steal at about $250 000 a pop.
And to all the aeronautically-inclined inventors out there, there is no doubt room for improvements that you can protect with patents lodged by a qualified and experienced patent attorney.


Having Designs on Hats

Hats aren’t nearly as popular as they once were, which is a real shame, because there’s something particularly appealing about a person in a hat. There’s nothing quite like a hat for a short-hand way of making statement and giving an impression very quickly. Somehow, you want to take a hat wearer more seriously, unless, of course, they’re wearing something ridiculous.
Hats aren’t just randomly slapped together, they are designed, and because they are designed they are patentable. Good design often takes into consideration the often-competing needs of looking good and being functional. Many hats have a practical value as well as a protective function in a variety of different jobs and situations. Because Australian conditions pose unique environmental and occupational challenges and problems which inventors need to solve and because innovation and originality is worth protecting then it’s worth having a registered design and patent protection in Australia and, naturally, this is where an Australian patent attorney can help out with such essential formalities such as doing an IP Australia patent search, just to make sure that any design idea that you might come up with hasn’t already been thought of before. IP Australia has its main office in Canberra, but there are also state offices in Sydney, Melbourne and other capitals.
The making of a better hat has been of concern to designers for some time.
Here’s a patent from 1933 for an improved type of sweatband for the interior of a hat:

Hat US 1899020

One of the big deals about this design is that the sweat band curves inward, thus adding a quality of “security”, which is obviously the sort of thing that cowboys with their ten-gallon hats would have to be concerned about.
But the problem for designers and inventors of hats isn’t just environmental, sometimes it’s cultural and coming up with a hat design that people want to wear, rather than have to wear, is its own challenge. Sometimes designers get it very right, sometimes very wrong and sometimes where all left wondering, as in the above example, “Hmmm. Is that really necessary or useful?”

Hats and Caps with Movable Bills or Brims US 5715534 – 1998

Those with an eye for detail will probably have already worked out that this is essentially an idea for a hat within a hat, rather in the same way that the Sydney Opera House is a building within a building. But whereas the iconic landmark has a substantial rationale for its design, this particular patent makes us ask if the added complication is actually worth it. After all, if we want to move a brim, how many of us really care if the hat or cap twists a little bit. Our hair is already mussed up, we’ll still end up with “hat hair”. Is it the twisty sensation that’s worrying this inventor, or is the inventor’s head somewhat more rectangular than average, meaning that the twisting of the whole hat will create considerable discomfort? If this sort of hat is going to work, the dome of the hat is going to have to be circular anyway?

Arguably slightly more commercially useful is this patent, also from the 1990s.

Illuminable Hat – US 5680718 A

This is almost as good as having your own personal display window on your forehead. At the touch of a button you too can tell the world what team your rooting for during night games, when that sort of thing really matters.

Bordering on the actually useful is this design from 2007, which features a place to put a pen or pencil (that isn’t behind your ear) and a pocket to hold a display card.

Hat US D571982 S1

Intriguingly – and this is the sort of thing that you only find out if you’re researching hat patents in the first place – there is an American company called “Zazzle”, which has a whole line of novelty hats with patent themes.
Here’s an example of one of them, celebrating a patent for another head protection garment – the gas mask.

Who knew?

But the piece de resistance for elaborate craziness must go to the design below from 1987. We’ve all seen examples of hats which carry beer cans from which you can suck the contents using flexible straws attached to the hat, and yes, there have been many designs and yes, many of them have had design patents. But the following work of genius takes the idea to a whole new level.

Helmet Bar

There are literally HOURS of fun to be had here, as you work out what to fill the containers with, and then which combination of valves you’d need to give you the right drink mixture at any given time. Even the mistakes would be a hoot and after a while, you’d be too zozzled to care anyway.
Since design patents only last 20 years you too can now make a helmet bar of your very own – if you can make sense of the illustration above.


Trading on Our Marks

It’s a little known fact that people in the modern world, who grow up in cities dominated by the activities of major corporations are far more likely to recognise company logos than they are to be able to identify local plants and wildlife.
For better or worse, trademarks are part of our outer and inner landscapes, and because they are the primary “face” of companies, they are valuable things, things that companies are willing to spend millions on developing, promoting and protecting with appropriate trademark registration through their primary champions, trademark attorneys and lawyers.
But where do these trademarks and logos come from? Who comes up with them?
Here’s the story behind some of the most iconic of modern icons.

Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, first wanted to call his company “Cadabra” as in “Abra Cadabra” but changed it when an intellectual property lawyer misheard the name as “cadaver”. His next choice was “Relentless”, but he got flack for that too because the name sounded “sinister”. In 1995 he finally settled on Amazon by looking through a dictionary. He didn’t have to go further than “A-m” because of the positive associations with the word – exotic and big. “A” also has the advantage of being the first in an alphabetised list, just like this one. The orange arrow underneath the name is reminiscent of a smile.


The global pen company is named after the simplified spelling of the company’s founder Baron Marchal Bich. Bic’s logo is in two parts, the Black on Orange BiC rhomboid and the ballpoint-headed Bic Schoolboy, designed by French graphic artist Raymond Savignac in 1961. The orange and black reflects the most common colours of Bic pens from that era, chosen for their high visibility.


In 1920 US mathematician Edward Kasner asked his nephew Milton Sirotta to come up with the name for a really big number. Milton came up with “googol” to designate a “1” with one hundred zeros following it. To give you an idea of how big a googol is, the total number of elementary particles in the known universe is “only” 1 followed by 80 zeros. You’d have to multiply that number by itself 20 more times to get a googol. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin originally called their search engine “BackRub”, but changed it to “google” (a misspelling of “googol”) in 1997 to represent the huge amounts of information that google would eventually handle.


Swede Ingvar Kamprad started IKEA in 1943 at the tender age of 17. Kamprad is now one of the 10 richest people in the world, so it pays to start early. It also pays to register your company as a charity – and paying very little tax – a status that IKEA has managed to keep all these years to everyone’s amazement. Even the trademark is owned by a company incorporated in low-tax Luxembourg. The name’s origins is much less mysterious than its corporate structure. It comes from the founder’s initials, “IK”, and the initial of the farm he grew up in “Elmtaryd” in his hometown of “Agunnyaryd”.

Originally, in 1926, it was Daimler-Benz, a manufacturer of internal combustion engines and named after the founder Karl Benz and in honour of a business rival Benz’s that he’d previously sued, Gottleib Daimler (it’s complicated). The “Mercedes” was named after Mercedes Jellinek, the daughter of Daimler’s associate Emil Jellinek and was originally the name of specific model racing car built by Daimler’s company Daimler-Motoren-Gesselschaft in 1901 (it’s complicated!). The distinctive three-pronged star in a circle that’s the company’s logo is an abstract representation of an aeroplane propeller, a reference to Mercedes-Benz’s focus on aeroplane manufacture during World War II.

Subway is actually owned by a holding company called “Doctor’s Associates Inc.” because in 1965, 17-year-old founder Fred DeLuca only wanted to start a business to pay for his medical school tuition. So he borrowed $1000 from family friend Dr. Peter Buck and founded “Pete’s Super Submarines” in Bridgeport Connecticut. The “Subway”, as in “way of the “sub”) name didn’t happen until 1968. Franchising started in 1974. Decades and over 25 000 stores later, Fred never did get around to going to medical school but he did graduate with a degree in Psychology from the University of Bridgeport in 1971.


Stanford University graduate electrical engineering students David Filo and Jerry Yang started “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web” in 1994. The “Yahoos” were a race of primitives from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel “Gulliver’s Travels”, known for their dirtiness and obsession with gems. Filo and Yang liked the name – which in Filo’s 1980’s native Louisiana had become a slang term for unsophisticated Southerners – and the pair then decided it was an acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchically Organised / Officious Oracle”.


The Apple of Our Trademarking, Copywriting and Patenting Eye

Imagine that you’re an inventor or entrepreneur, just starting out and struggling to turn your brilliant idea into a commercially viable venture. You might be looking to protect your intellectual property from commercial theft through patents and trademarks, say in Sydney or anywhere else in Australia. There are challenges, but you’re willing to face them, because you believe in your work and what you’re doing.
Then there are the challenges of becoming and maintaining a status as a multi-national, multi-billion dollar commercial computing empire.
Apple was established in 1976, the brain-child of Steve Jobs as well as Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne, both of whom don’t get nearly the amount of credit they deserve. Apple’s road has been long and bumpy, but they’ve brought together some of the best technologically-focused minds of past few decades and they have about 20 000 patents under their belt (and counting). Their litigation history alone runs into over 350 cases where they’ve either been the plaintiff (defending their rights) or the defendant (where they’ve been perceived to have violated other people’s rights).
Here are some highlights from the past four decades.

Apple Corps vs Apple Computer

In 1978 Apple Corps (the record company that the Beatles founded) filed suit against Apple Computer for trademark infringement because even back then, Apple was looking at being involved in the music business. Apple Computer settled with Apple Corp in 1978 for $80 000, on the condition that Apple wouldn’t have anything further to do with the music business – an agreement that history would show that they would rather flagrantly violate. That first happened in 1991, when the Apple IIgs came with a music synthesiser chip. Apple Corps wasn’t having any of this, and Apple Computers had to pay Apple Corps over $26 million in compensation (equivalent to about $50 million today). This time Apple had to agree not to package, sell or distribute music in the form of physical materials (records, CDs and so on). When Apple introduced iTunes in 2001, the iTunes Music Store and the iPod in 2003, Apple Corps took them to court again. Three years later the verdict came down in favour of Apple Computers, probably because Apple Computer wasn’t producing records or CDs.
Apple Corps and Apple Computer finally settled their differences in 2007 when the two Apples agreed that the computer company would own all Apple-related trademarks, leasing back some trademarks to Apple Corps for their use.
iTunes now has over 600 million active accounts servicing over 300 million mobile devices and records and CDs are gradually becoming things of the past, so it’s hard not to see Apple Computer as being the ultimate victor in this decades-long battle. Still, since 2010 the entire Beatles catalogue is now available on iTunes, so it looks like it’s been a bit of a win/win all round.

Apple Computer, Inc vs Microsoft Corp.

Probably the most famous legal dispute that Apple has been involved in has been in its dispute with Microsoft. Whereas trademarks, broadly speaking, involve the use of graphical symbols, copyright involves the order of words and symbols, which is why software, which is all about a correct order of words and symbols, is a copyright issue, and well within the purview of intellectual property lawyers and attorneys. Apple’s 1988 argument, in a nutshell, was that it had invented the graphical user interface (GUI) – the method whereby most of us are used to using computers with windows, icons and mouse arrows etc. And although Apple had licensed their GUI to Microsoft for the release of Windows 1.0 in 1985, Microsoft then made changes that were in violation of Apple’s copyright. In 1994, after six years of wrangling and an appeal, US courts determined that the changes that Microsoft had made weren’t copyrightable. A hugely important point here was that the changes made were the only possible way of expressing a particular idea. You can only claim copyright protection (or trademark and patent protection) if there are multiple ways of expressing an idea, and someone is violation your particular, legally protected expression. An idea, or even an overall “look and feel”, as Apple argued, isn’t protectable.

Nokia vs Apple

Although Apple is primarily known for its stylish computers, it’s arguable that it’s real success story is the iPhone. Introduced in 2007 the iPhone is frequently cited as the invention that revived Apple’s fortunes. But in 2009 Finnish company Nokia argued that the iPhone used technology that Nokia had not only invented but was essential to all mobile phones. After two years of arguments in multiple courts, Apple had to concede defeat, and, for an undisclosed sum, had to, and will continue to have to, pay royalties to Nokia for use of their technology.
The litigation continues though, between Apple and Samsung about Android phones and tablets. Over 50 lawsuits, millions of dollars and claims in the billions later, the war, to date, continues with Samsung being, so far, the big loser, being ordered to pay Apple hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation.
Who said intellectual property law was dull?


The Joys of Winter Patents

As the cooler seasons come to the Southern Hemisphere it’s time for people to start rugging up. Global warming notwithstanding there’s still enough of a nip in the air to make people start thinking of staying warm.
Throughout thousands of years people have been finding solutions to heating up, but since fire and blankets aren’t patentable – inventors have had to come up with other ways of turning our desire for warmth into something that they can sell and that needs protection from copycats eager to steal their potentially hugely profitable intellectual property.
Patent US 3114825A from General Electric dates from 1961.

The Joys of Winter Patents
This pad is a sensible solution to the potential problems of heating pads. The possibility of electrocution is taken care of with special circuitry and the possibility of fire with non-flammable fibreglass insulation. Heating pads have a distinct advantage over other methods of heating. Most heating requires the warming the air in a room which then warms people up. Unfortunately, air isn’t a particularly great conductor of heat, so you need to heat up a lot of it to feel its effects. The other disadvantage of hot air is that it rises, so it’s going to heat up the ceiling before it heats you up. Faced with the realities of physics, and the insight that it’s people who want the warmth, not the environment, inventors have gotten somewhat more inventive and the patents a little more bizarre.
US 4605000A from 1986 – The Greenhouse Helmet
The Joys of Winter Patents 2

Why should Planet Earth have all the fun of the greenhouse effect? Since a lot of body heat escapes via the head (heat travels up, remember) why not trap it where it’s needed. The Greenhouse helmet is made from a plastic with anti-fogging treatment, so you can get on with your life without breath condensation getting in the way. All your hot air creates a comfortable, tropical environment and the carbon-dioxide in your exhalations feeds the plants that are conveniently living in the helmet. Aside from the warmth, the plants provide you with fresh air, protected from pollution and the moisture in your breath means that you never have to water the plants either. It’s like a holiday in Queensland without the inconvenience and expense.
US 6612440B1 from 2003 – The Gerbil Vest
The Joys of Winter Patents 3

Necessity is the mother of invention, so why not try to kill several necessities with one stone, or in this case another stylish and subtle item of apparel? Although the Gerbil vest was probably designed with the intention of keeping gerbils exercised and teaching kids the responsibility of looking after their pets, the fact that a warm animal is running around your trunk and that you’d have to be twitching and moving around, and generating your own body heat a lot as one of the humankind’s favourite rodents uses you as an athletic track, you can’t help but be both burning calories and heating up at the same time. Like the Greenhouse helmet above the Gerbil Vest makes ingenious use of synergies to solve several problems at once. One can’t imagine why these things just aren’t flying off the shelves every winter.
Finally, winter isn’t just about staying warm. Winter is preceded by autumn and that means the pretty, but annoying reality of leaves falling off trees.
US 604245B1 – Leaf Gathering Trousers
The Joys of Winter Patents 4

Why waste a walk in the garden? A pair of these zip-on tubes have a net between them. As you stride through over-bounteous nature leaf-fall magically gathers up between your legs so that you become, in effect a human rake. If you’re really smart you can put all three of the above inventions on your kids, so that they can pretend to be astronauts with their pet gerbils and doing useful work gathering specimens of life on the alien world of “Outdoorsia” (which really has become an alien world for a lot of kids), while getting them some exercise and away from glowing screens while you can stay inside, resting your feet on a warming pad while getting a turn playing your own games of Minecraft on the tablet for a change.


Easter Patents

People who are “invention-oriented” like to come up with solutions to problems. Another way of saying this is that inventors, at some point, come up with an idea that satisfies a need. But coming up with an idea isn’t enough to keep that idea yours because intellectual property laws, which include copyright, trademarks and patents, don’t protect ideas in and of themselves. IP protects the particular physical manifestation of that idea. In copyright, the physical manifestation is the order of the words. With trademarks, it’s a particular graphic design. With patents, it’s the design for a physical thing.
The great thing about holidays is that by their very existence, they create needs. If it’s Christmas, you need Christmas Trees. If it’s Valentine’s day, you need bon-bons and flowers. If it’s Easter, you need bunny rabbits, chickens and Easter eggs. Where there is a need, there is a business opportunity. Opportunities suggest ideas but since ideas aren’t enough you need to invest time, energy and money into translating those ideas into physical solutions. Then, because you want some legal redress in case someone steals your solution, you’re going to want to get a patent. Patents are all about protecting investments.
Here are some “solutions” to the “problem” of Easter that inventors considered important enough to want to protect with patents. This makes sense because the Easter industry is literally worth billions of dollars in sales every year. The ideas might be whimsical, but the money and business interests at stake certainly aren’t.
Marshmallow Peeps are a multi-million dollar institution in the United States. They’re basically coloured and flavoured marshmallows. Originally they were in the shape of chicks – hence the name – but they now come in a variety of other shapes, including the inevitable bunnies. Peeps were the invention of a Russian-born candy making genius called Sam Born, who was about as close to a real-life Willy Wonka as there ever was. Born started his business in 1910 and invented (and patented) techniques for creating chocolate sprinkles, coating ice-cream bars in hard chocolate and for mechanically inserting sticks into lollipops but his Peeps were hand-made, requiring a total of 27 hours per Peep. It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that his company devised ways of automating the process. Incredibly, Marshmallow Peeps weren’t trademarked until 1980, which is probably a comment on increasing competition from “look-alike” imports from countries that have looser interpretations of IP and the need to protect the brand.

With millions of eggs being decorated in schools all over the western world it was inevitable that someone would come up with some way of automating the process. US4573586A from 1986 (now expired) was for an Easter Egg dyeing and drying device that was meant to address the problem of messiness. As the “Background of the Invention” in the patent application states:
“Each year hundreds of thousands of kids in the United States and other countries participate in Easter egg dyeing festivities. While the kids love it, the parents or teachers hate it, because egg dyeing is a messy art. The children, usually of age 3 to 11, spill the dye on the table or on themselves.”

easter patents image 1

An earlier patent US3848564 from 1973 (now expired) took a slightly more mechanical approach.


But not all solutions have to be complicated, and just because a design seems simple doesn’t mean it isn’t worth protecting. US Patent US4121435A from 1978 (now also expired) described a hinged plastic egg, which could, no doubt contain other eggs or candies or toys.


You’ve no doubt encountered dozens of these eggs in your life without ever realising that the original was protected by a patent.
Given recent advances in technology, it’s still possible for some enterprising someone out there to find a new, merchantable and exploitable take on Easter. All it requires is a little imagination and maybe a hint of creative madness in the nicest possible meaning of the word.