Monday, October 1, 2007

What is patentable?

I happened to pick up a copy of Reader's Digest this past week. In one of the 'joke' sections, they made fun of some new inventions-one of which is US Patent No. 7,101,314 entitled "Facial weights for total facial muscle toning and development".

Now if you think that is a little wacky, check out this one from 1912: "DEVICE TO PREVENT DOGS FROM WORRYING SHEEP" which says in part:

My invention relates to devices to prevent dogs from worrying sheep, and it has for its object to provide one which may be fastened to the nose of a dog, and which is provided with hooks which will become entangled in the wool of a sheep so that when the sheep starts to run the dog's nose will be pulled, and the dog will receive a lesson which will break him of his habit of worrying sheep.

Basically, the invention is accomplished by attaching an oversized fishhook to the nose of a dog!

There are a number of websites (google 'wacky patents') that document the strange and unusual inventions for which patents have been granted over the years. It almost seems you can patent anything, right?

Well, not exactly.

A patent can be granted for an invention which is a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.

There are a couple of explanations needed in this definition.

First, the word "useful" (which seems pretty subjective) simply means that the invention works. It does not mean that someone may find it practical or helpful-just that the invention works the way the inventor says it does-that it functions as described.

Secondly, the word "new" has a specific meaning when it comes to patents. It means the invention must not have been invented previously by someone else, or disclosed to the public previously (in the US you have 1 year from public disclosure to file a patent application. Other countries do not allow any public disclosure before the application.)

Of course there are several statutes which define these words with respect to patents more specifically. But for us today, this is enough.

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