29 September 2011

Self-healing materials

The BBC website has an interesting story about self-healing materials, based on work by a research team led by Nancy Sottos at the University of Illinois.

Material that can "heal" their own cracks would be very beneficial in many areas, such as in construction. One approach, a decade old, is to have tiny capsules: if a crack occurs, the capsule breaks and a hardening solution spreads out to correct the weakness. Apparently this only works in tiny cracks, up to about 50-100 millionths of a metre, as a large capsule would weaken the structure. That means that a tiny capsule won't have much fluid.

The new approach, published in the Journal of the Royal Society interface, is to have a network of miniature channels imbedded in a plastic. The healing material is within the channels. Syringes on the outside put the fluid under pressure so that if a crack occurs fluids erupt from parallel channels, a solvent filling the crack while another fluid hardens it. With this approach the crack can be a millimetre across. Professor Sottos says "In a biological system, fluids are pumping and flowing," so it is an example of invention being based on a principle in nature. 

The more recent of the list of 14 American patent specifications by Nancy Sottos seem to cover this technology, providing a detailed account of how to use it. The idea is not, apparently, completely new, as there is a list of related patent documents for a World patent application by the team that was published in April 2009.

22 September 2011

Keep calm and carry on trade mark dispute

It is not often that trade marks appear on breakfast TV, but this morning there were several minutes on a dispute about the use of "Keep calm and carry on" for goods. The clip can be seen on the BBC website.

Mark Coop, the owner of the company Keep Calm and Carry On (incorporated in February 2009), says in the clip that he has been using it for four years to sell goods. The story I have heard is that the phrase was  printed in 1939 on leaflets and posters to encourage the British people to, indeed, keep calm and carry on in wartime conditions, but it was never used.

In October 2010 the company filed for an application for the mark with OHIM, the EU-wide registration body for trade marks. Registration occurred in March 2011 for the mark, with the goods covered by the 8 classes specified listed on the database entry for the mark. It's from the UK site, where they list it as a valid mark in the UK (it covers the entire EU). It is interesting that the goods sold by the company feature a crown above the phrase, which might be taken to imply government or royal approval or involvement, but the trade mark registration is only for the phrase.

The 8 classes are from the 45 classes of goods and services in the Nice Classification, and applicants list goods or activities within the classes where protection is sought. The UK IPO has a useful list of the classes. The idea is that different applicants can use the same mark for different classes so long as there is no conflict such as being confused about the source of the goods or services.

This has occurred: Keep Calm and Carry on Beverages Limited, incorporated in November 2010, filed the next day for British registration 2565406 which is for three classes involving beverages and transport, and then two applications in December for classes for infused drinks and for, perhaps oddly because of their company name, for contraceptives. These have all been registered.

Now a dispute has broken out, because Simply Printing 4 U, a Dorset start-up by Kerry Cade, has been told by e-Bay® that they cannot sell their mugs, mouse mats and posters on the site because of the registration by Keep Calm and Carry On. Cade, wife of army officer Jason, says "We are bitterly disappointed that we cannot sell items featuring ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’. To be an Armed Forces family and to be told we cannot use what is essentially a British phrase feels like a real kick in the teeth. It’s a huge blow to our business”.

The entry for the European registration on OHIM's trade mark database is annotated to show that on the 8 September Jason Cade filed a request to cancel the trade mark on the grounds of invalidity.

Reasons will have to be put forward such as lack of distinctiveness, or that it is a generic phrase that would be unfairly monopolised by a single company. My understanding (I am not a lawyer) is that this normally involves wording likely to be used in the trade -- "four seasons" for sleeping bags is an example. A phrase can however acquire distinctiveness if people come to associate it with a certain product, as shown by poll evidence.

I notice from the Keep Calm and Carry On website that they do not make it clear that it's a registered trade mark by using the familiar ® icon, nor is it used on their goods. While this is not required as far as I am aware in Europe (it is in the USA), it is always good policy to make it clear that you are using wording as a trade mark and that you mean to enforce it.

21 September 2011

Gas pipelines and the development of inspection "pigs"

Today's Daily Telegraph has the obituary of Belfast-born Ernest Shannon, who led British Gas in finding a solution to the problem of monitoring gas pipelines for corrosion.

During the 1970s, according to Shannon himself, there were many explosions in American gas pipelines where fractures had occurred as a result of thin, corroded parts of the pipeline. The companies preferred to pay compensation rather than to look for methods of identifying possible problems.

New Scientist in an article in the 30 July 1981 issue, page 288, discusses the problem and the solution in more detail than I give here. Pipeline pigs to identify loss of shape were already known, but British Gas developed the concept to look for loss of thickness in the walls of the pipeline. The pig is wafted along by the gas and rings of magnets means it can assess magnetic field and hence the thickness of pipes. The data was digitised and stored on a tape recorder which was analysed when the pig was retreived later. Looking for stress cracks was more complex, and ultrasonic sensors were attached to the pigs to carry out this function.

It is not easy for the non-specialist such as myself to trace the relevant patents but here is a list of four in the sector by British Gas. The drawing below is from GB2260613 in that list, "Magnetic inspection machine."

Magnetic inspection machine 

It cost British Gas £47 million developing the technology, according to the New Scientist article, but the company was able to license the technology very widely. The concept has of course been developed over the years.

There was also the problem of getting the pig into the pipeline in the first place, hence the interestingly named Pig launcher patent application (more mundanely titled "Guiding of a device" when the patent was granted).

19 September 2011

American patent law reform

The Leahy-Smith Patent Reform Act, otherwise known as the America Invents Act (AIA), has become law following President Obama's signature.

The text of the act, H.R. 1249, is hard going and the USPTO's America Invents Act: Effective Dates document is a useful listing of the key provisions as well as giving the dates the legislation becomes active.

Perhaps most of interest to those in the rest of the world is that the USA will, for patent applications published on or after the 16 March 2013, become a first-to-file country. This means that in case of conflict between patent applications for the same subject matter, it will be the earlier filing rather than invention date that is vital. The filing date could be in another country under the Paris Convention, where the applicant wanted US protection. Now all countries will use first-to-file, although Brad Pedersen and Justin Woo argue in some detail that it's not quite the same regime.

It has been said that this change will hurt small companies and private inventors, and will encourage quick, perhaps premature filings to avoid possible disputes. It could be argued, though, that the cost (and uncertainty) of the old "interference" actions to determine the date of novelty for the parties involved will vanish, as will the associated costs for the USPTO.

Other provisions concern official fees, where, broadly speaking, small entities and those filing electronically benefit, while there is a 15% rise in most fees, and those who want quick processing can pay a $4500 surcharge. President Obama had pointed out that there was a backlog of 700,000 patent applications waiting to be "opened", and for many getting priority would be worth it. Others would say that it is unfair that money gives you an advantage.

There are other provisions to do with, for example, challenging a granted patent within one year. The USPTO itself says "The new law will afford more certainty for patent applicants and owners, and provide the USPTO the resources needed to operate efficiently and issue high-quality patents."

13 September 2011

The Patent Blog, live

The British Library is hosting a free evening event on the 4 October called "The Patent Blog - Live".

I relish the opportunity to meet any of my readers who would like to come along, and questions and debate will be welcomed both for me and for the UK Intellectual Property Office's Nigel Hanley. There will be a certain emphasis on patents in software and computing and how they are protected. For example, Nigel will explain about the "Peer to Patent" initiative, which helps the Office determine if an invention in software and related areas is really new.

Patents and the media has also been suggested as an area for debate -- do the media often get things wrong, such as the (fictitious) "world patent" I often hear about. 

The event runs from 18.00 to 20.00 at our Business & IP Centre, and while it is free, it is essential to book. More information is given at this page

09 September 2011

Out of this world: "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" patents

Gus Lopez' Toy design patents site links to 51 US design patents for toys related to the "Star Wars" films. for the look. Design patents is the American term for what the British call registered designs, where look rather than function is what is new.

The applicants seem to have been Lucasfilm (with George Lucas mentioned as inventor) or 20th Century Fox.

One in fact is a utility patent, Multi-track multi-vehicle roller coaster with special effects, from 2005, a ride based on the films.

Another enthusiast has listed Star Trek design patents, which are all, I think, by Paramount Pictures. An example is "Toy spaceship", shown in miniature below.

Toy spaceship 

All this shows the marketing effort that was made to merchandise the vehciles, costumes, etc. shown in the films. Typically a manufacturer would be licensed to pay royalties to the film company for each unit sold of the toy.

The British Library currently has a free exhibition on science fiction, Out of this world: science fiction but not as you know it. It closes on the 25 September, and is a must for all fans of sci-fi.