Viewing posts tagged patents

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.


The Twelve Patents of Christmas

Yes, it’s that time of the year again. Christmas has over the centuries attracted inventors and innovators hoping to make it more fun. Christmas patents are dominated by American inventors, but the principles involved in sound patenting apply just as much to Australian patent registration too.
Here then, are twelve patents that represent innovations created in the spirit of Christmas.

Number 12, 11 and 10 – Artificial Christmas Trees

While natural Christmas Trees look and smell great they have several disadvantages, the most apparent of which is that they shed needles and create a huge mess and even worse, they’re not reusable, so artificial Christmas trees always had considerable commercial potential. Early Christmas artificial tree patents date from the first years of the 20th Century. Aesthetically, they had varying degrees of success.
US Patent 994 248 from 1911 looks like a drying rack.
US Patent 1 577 207 from 1926 is made from a set of pre-cut plywood pieces that gives it a sort of proto-Ikea look. It was designed for display windows in department stores and had shelves that you could put sale items on.
It wasn’t until 1927 that somebody came up with something that at least pays some lip-service to looking “natural”. Like all modern Christmas trees, it had another advantage that real ones don’t have. It was collapsible for ease of storage.

Number 9, 8 and 7 – Christmas Tree Decorations

US Patent 1 791 533 from 1931 takes advantage of a greater confidence in the then-new practice of making things from plastic and using them in electrical devices. This is basically a small plastic Christmas Tree with lights. It was also, supposedly, water proof.
Then there is, of course, tinsel. You’ve probably never wondered until now how tinsel is made, and no, the answer isn’t “elves”. There are actually specialised machines that make it and this patent, Number 2 031 566 from 1936 is one such device.
US Patent Number 2 110 353 from 1938 might look boring, but it’s historically significant as the first application of using a set of cords deliberately as Christmas tree lights. It’s also the origin of millions of lost hours devoted to finding blown lights because, when lights are arranged in a series, when one light blows, all the other lights go out too.

Number 6, 5 and 4 – The Mistletoe Theme

The origins of “kissing under the mistletoe” for luck are lost to history. All we can say for sure is that the parasitic plant was sacred to the Druids and might have played some part in their Winter Solstice Celebration. Inventions along this theme seem are frivolous, but the inventors must have seen at least some commercial potential.
US Patent 4 488 316 from 1983 is a “Mistletoe Supporting Headband” for the man who wants to do some mobile Christmas stalking.
US Patent Application 2002 012 6506 from 2002 is for a Hanging “mistletoe” ornament that incorporates a motion sensor to detect someone who’s under it and then puts on a light show and plays music.
US Patent D 407 189 is an example of a design patent (referred to a registered design in Australia). Usually, when we think of patents, we think of protecting the way an inventor has solved a problem, so the emphasis is on how something works. With a design patent, the emphasis is on how something looks, which, as any fashion designer will tell you, can have huge commercial value, which is probably what was in the mind of the inventor of the “Kiss Me” cap.

Number 3, 2 and 1 – Toys

Where would Christmas be without kids and their toys? You could fill volumes with the records of toy patents and if you’re an inventor who’s seriously interested in commercial potential then toys are the way to go. If you have a truly brilliant toy idea you will have to protect that invention with a patent registered with the help of a qualified patent attorney to insure, as much as possible, that your invention is safe from commercial theft. The potential rewards are enormous, as these top three Christmas patents show. Intriguingly, all these toys demonstrate that an invention doesn’t have to be complicated to work, it just has to be original and attractive.
US patent 2 415 012 1947, The Slinky, remains one of the most popular toys ever.
Californian company Wham-O hit gold with US Patent 3 079 728 from 1958 when it sold 25 million units of the Hula Hoop in its first four months of release.
And Wham-O hit gold again in 1967 with patent 3 359 678. The Frisbee was an aerodynamic (and safety) improvement on the pie tin lids people used to throw at each other (and still do sometimes).