30 August 2011

Oscar Pistorius the athlete and his prosthetic legs

Oscar Pistorius, the South African athlete who runs with carbon-fibre prosthetic legs, came last in his 400 metre semi-final at the Athletics World Championships in Korea, with a time of 46.19 seconds, which is still a very good time.

He was born with a congenital condition that left him with lower legs but no feet. When aged 11 months the lower legs were amputated. A serious athlete, he won three gold medals in the 2008 Paralympics.

His presence in competitions for able-bodied athletes, though, has been controversial, as his prosthetic legs are said by many to give him an unfair advantage over the other runners. In 2007 the IAAF amended its rules so as to ban "any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device". This was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in May 2008, which ruled that there was no evidence that he had an unfair advantage.

The blades are called Cheetahs or the Flex-Foot®, and are available from Icelandic company Össur. They were invented by Californian Van Phillips. A water-skiing accident in 1976 resulted in his left leg below the knee being amputated. Existing prosthetic legs did not fit well and did not respond as he wished, so he looked for a strong, flexible and light solution. Dale Abildskov, an aerospace composite materials engineer, worked with him to make a carbon fibre prototype. Giving it a “C” shape meant that the properties of carbon fibre could be used to simulate the spring action of a normal foot, allowing users to run and jump.

The video below by Össur shows the innovation in use. 


In 1992 Phillips applied for what became World patent application Attachment construction for prosthesis. Below is the main drawing.

Prosthetic blade leg for athletes patent drawing 
There are numerous patent specifications in Phillips' name for ideas relating to prostheses, as listed here for the American ones.

26 August 2011

Steve Jobs and his patents for Apple

Miniature drawing images from all of Steve Jobs' 313 patents for Apple have been very usefully listed by The New York Times.

They are in 12 categories, and clicking on the image leads to the first page of the drawings, and you can click onwards to the other drawings pages. It is more tricky to see the full document: clicking on "U.S. Patent Reference", to the right of the drawings, links to the full text (description and claims) at the official USPTO site, and from there to get to the full document you have to click on Images (at the top). The trouble is, that links to a TIFF file and not a PDF, so you may need to load that software.

It's a pity, as the information provided by the newspaper is otherwise very neat and easy to use if you are interested in Steve Jobs' epic contribution to consumer technology. There is no doubt that he has been the driving force behind Apple's innovation, and, though the look may be slipping a little, he created a cool, we-are-not-a huge-corporation image for the company. A profit in 2010's financial year of £14 billion means that they are,actually,indeed huge.

Some of the 313 are in fact "design patents", for the look, rather than "utility patents", for the function. Design patents are preceded by a D in their numeration. In every case, it seems to me, Jobs is one of several or even many named inventors.

Now his sudden resignation for health reasons as CEO has both caused a dip in Apple's share price and a surge of interest in the company. Whither Apple ?

The company takes out numerous design patents, and Media player looks like the original look of the iPod®, while Touch screen device, method, and graphical user interface for determining commands by applying heuristics, with its main drawing below, looks signficant for the iPhone®. Increasingly numerous patents are involved in consumer electronics innovation, and it is often impossible to name just one or two as being the key patents for a certain product.

I-phone patent drawing image 

Thanks to a contact at the UK's Intellectual Property Office for drawing my attention to the webpage.

25 August 2011

Jaime O'Connor's oven door shield invention

Today's Metro had an article on Jaime O'Connor of Halifax, Yorkshire, who has invented (and is selling) an oven shield to prevent the doors from being splattered by cooking foods.

The shield is easy to fit on the door, using suction pads, and she says that users will save a fortune on oven cleaners. She thought it up when husband Dale, who runs an Aga oven servicing business, told her that his customers wanted to know how they could keep the oven doors clean.

She first invented a shield for Agas but then made one suitable for other ovens. They are made in Britain, and are available in several retailers and on their own Oven Door Shield website.

Jaime works full-time in her husband's business and also has to cope with a five-year old and a two-year old. She is quoted in the story as saying "I want to show other mums it is possible to invent your own products and get them out there."

The World patent application for the invention was published in June 2011 as Oven door shield. Both Jaime and Dale are listed as inventors.

In searching for the patent, I noticed that the free Espacenet database did not recognise O'Connor as a valid search term. There were lots of hits for Oconnor, though not for this invention, which could only be found by asking for Connor as the search term. It could easily be thought that there was no patent specification for the concept.

23 August 2011

Bang Creations: a product design agency

Yesterday I visited Bang Creations in Haslemere, Surrey, a "product design agency", following an invitation to see them.

Stefan Knox, its founder, and his colleague Alan Ward explained to me about the way their company works. They can design a solution to a problem, or refine an existing product to improve it; they can work on the packaging or brochures, and on the actual marketing.

Stefan is clearly an outstanding product designer and is enthusiastic about what he does -- making something better, and more attractive to customers. He originally had a lot of experience in the toy industry, such as with Hasbro, although the company now mainly works with any kind of consumer products.

Here are a couple of stories they told me about. The website has other case studies.

LoJo® is a transformation of the beanbag concept. It looks rather like a beanbag, but you can unzip it so that a seat falls down and the remainder supports you. The support comes from an inflatable bladder, which means that it can be shipped deflated, which saves on costs. It was created by Stefan and his wife Kristin, and there is a website for the product. Below is the main drawing of the patent specification, Collapsible seat.

LoJo collapsible seat patent drawing 
Another project was being asked to improve a sun lounger, Rotasol®, where it can fold away within a shell. The case study page shows the original drawings at the bottom, and the refined look at the top in mauve. There were constraints, such as keeping within the original shell dimensions (as tooling had already occurred), but it was possible to bring in features to improve versatility and safety. There is also a website for that company.

Bang Creations will do a certain amount for free. They can send a questionnaire about a concept (with a non-disclosure agreement) to anyone interested, and will briefly comment on the answers. This may lead to a free initial one-hour consultation.

All in all, I was impressed by the sheer range of what the company can do, and the obvious commitment and professionalism of those who work there. 

19 August 2011

Autonomy and its speech recognition inventions

Hewlett Packard has offered £6.2 billion for Autonomy Corporation, a Cambridge, UK company with considerable expertise in the speech recognition area, where software works out what people are saying.

This is a list of American patent documents by Autonomy. They include for example Automatic spoken language identification based on phoneme sequence patterns . 

Like other software-based patent specifications, the description does not consist of machine code but rather a detailed description of how it works, which must be fascinating for anyone interested in the problems of speech recognition.  

The Autonomy board has unanimously recommended the offer to its shareholders. The company is widely considered to be one of the UK's software stars. The company website says that it helps "organizations to derive meaning and value from their information, as well as mitigate the risks associated with those same assets", and that it was founded in 1996 to radically change the way people and computers interact: "where computers adapt to our world rather than the other way around."

There is much patent activity in the field of speech recognition. Here is a list of just the World patent applications published in that topic so far in 2011.

17 August 2011

Modular straw bales for construction

I have often watched, on television shows like Grand Designs, self-builders taking a lot of time packing straw bales to make walls, and then rounding them off with chain saws.

ModCell is a company based in Bath which has applied for patents for a Construction panel where straw bales are treated in modular fashion: you slot in the panels where needed. They already have a granted British patent, and the product is already available -- as ModCell®. Here is the main drawing.

Modular straw bales for construction patent image 
Straw is plentiful and provides excellent insulation (although rather bulky, perhaps), and is sometimes used as a green method in construction. Enabling its use in pre-made panels should make its use cheaper, simpler and quicker.

The ModCell website was very attractive and interesting, and I particularly liked reading about the BaleHaus which was built in 2009 in Bath.

The classification E04B1/35K is for "constructions using straw bales" and there are 34 patent documents in the list available on Espacenet.

13 August 2011

Zanran: a search engine for data

I don't usually post on non-patent or other IP matters, but I'm making an exception for a valuable search engine that should be used when it's data rather than words that you are looking for.

It can be very hard to find data such as pie graphs, bar graphs and the like. Putting in words into Google so often means that you simply get lots of pages of varying quality and relevance which you have to work through. Putting in extra words, especially in the Advanced format, by the way, often does help.

I now routinely use the free site Zanran when I want to gather statistics on subjects such as poverty in London, or patents by companies in telecommunications. Just run the cursor down the PDF or Excel icons and an image from the document appears. It's a simple and easy way to identify useful documents. You can add limits as well, such as saying that the the site must be less than 2 years old, or that the site must come from a certain country (I would suggest that they add other countries to their list to increase usage).

I first heard about Zanran a few years ago when one of their development people asked if he could have a coffee with me to see if I had any thoughts about how an early version could be improved. There was an interesting discussion and some changes, they kindly told me, were incorporated as a result. I don't know how exactly the search engine works -- I'm guessing that it looks for captions or words around graphs and tables.

The importance of filtering the vast amounts of information on the Web so that you quickly find good material becomes ever more crucial. Zanran fills an important hole in that effort.

12 August 2011

Christian Louboutin and Yve Saint Laurent dispute over red outsoles

Judge Victor Marrero has ruled against Christian Louboutin in a dispute over using a red outsole for shoes as a trade mark.

The 32 page ruling, which is quite lively and fun to read for a piece of litigation, can be read here. It dates from the 10 August in New York's Southern District.

Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) were defending themselves against a charge of trade mark infringement over this trade mark (trademark in the US), which is registered as no. 3361597:

Louboutin red outsole trade mark 

In the US details for it we are told "The color(s) red is/are claimed as a feature of the mark. The mark consists of a lacquered red sole on footwear. The dotted lines are not part of the mark but are intended only to show placement of the mark." The corresponding Community Trade Mark cites a particular pantone colour.

Louboutin said that YSL were selling almost identical shoes, and that this was an infringement of the trade mark. YSL in their defence referred to older uses of the concept such as Dorothy's ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz.

The first fullish account I read of the dispute, in today's Metro, talked in general terms so that it sounded like a copyright or design case, for similarities of look in a product, and only near the end mentioned trade marks. Marrero rejected claims by Louboutin that they had plans to only enforce the trade mark on high-heeled shoes only and for specific shades of red.

My personal opinion is that it should never have been registered as a trade mark in the first place, as to me it is a design feature rather than a means to denote the origin of the goods.

I am indebted to Alison Frankel for her discussion of the case and her link to the judgment. She says that Counsel Bernstein for the defence had a "blast" fighting the case.

[The IPKat blog has updated on a further ruling. Ed., 7 September 2012]

11 August 2011

Patented drugs and Supplementary Protection Certificates (SPCs)

Drugs are a special area in patents, as unlike most areas of invention permission from regulatory authorities is needed to market them. This means that often products that have received patents cannot be used for years.

To restore the lost portion of the patent term, Supplementary Protection Certificates (SPCs) are available, which provide the lost time for protection beyond the normal 20 years from filing. Each patent office independently decides on this. Generic drug manufacturers, eager to market a product as soon as the term expires, need to know the precise date when a drug loses protection. More on this complicated subject is in the Wikipedia article and the SPC Blog.

My interest is in the recording of data in patent office journals or databases. The UK has a database for SPCs UK or EP (UK) patents which is only searchable by the patent number or the SPC number. In the case of the UK, fertilizers or pesticides can also be SPCs.

In addition, there at present 26 decisions by the UK IPO on SPCs, which can be found by going to their Results of past patent decisions database and asking for the keyword or phrase "Supplementary Protection Certificates". The decisions involve some kind of dispute between parties or an appeal against the IPO's ruling on the length of a term, or if an SPC is valid.

Because the IPO database cannot be searched by e.g. trade name, I normally turn to another source to identify a US patent for the same invention. I can then check on Espacenet for a UK or EP equivalent patent number. This source is the Orange Book, on the US FDA site.

There are other specialist databases, or data within national patent databases, and patent journals frequently contain data. As the area is so complicated many prefer to take advice from experts (I certainly do not claim to know the area well). Advice is highly recommended as it is easy to make costly mistakes.

The only such expert that I personally know is Martin Paltnoi. Our friendship goes back many years. His MPA Business Services company has recently launched a database of SPCs covering European companies which is available to clients.

09 August 2011

Nexeon and its use of silicon for lithium-ion batteries

The BBC website has a story about Nexeon, a company based in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, raising £40 million from investors to scale up dramatically production of a much improved battery.

The technology involves coating lithium-ion (li-on) batteries with silicon powder. This greatly increases performance -- almost ten times the "energy capacity per gram", the company claims. It would mean either much smaller batteries or much longer life. They could be used in mobile phones and also in electric vehicles and other applications.

The key, apparently, is something called sub-micron "pillared particles". When li-on batteries are charged the lithium migrates into the silicon. As the power is used it migrates back out. This places a strain on the silicon, causing cracking and poor performance. By using powder the cycle life is greatly improved.

Nexeon was formed in 2006 as a spin-off company by Imperial Innovations, who commercialise work by Imperial College. The technology was based on Professor Mino Green's work. He was listening to a lecture where it was stated that silicon was theoretically superior to graphite but that the large volume expansion that silicon would undergo would block its use. He thought then of the pillared particles concept.

This is a list of 9 World patent applications in the name of Nexeon which mention silicon in the abstract, all published since 2008.