I guess everyone who has ever tinkered a little bit and actually reached at a somewhat working prototype, thought about patents in essentially one of two ways. Either: am I violating some patents with those things I create – in case I would sell them or found an enterprise around them? Or: this is such an original idea, I should protect it with a patent. How complicated can this be?
Both ways arrive at initially answering the single question: Does someone else already own a similar applicable patent?
I did some patent research for split keyboards as part of my keyboard project: TheTasTaTur. There are a few patents that might match. As far as I can tell, though. As the described things are usually somewhat hard to grasp and you soon get lost in details unable to envision the whole picture. Here is an example abstract:
A keyboard includes a plurality of keys associated with alphanumeric characters including the letters A-Z and at least the numbers 1-9. The keys are split into a left side section and a right side section. The left side section is oriented at least partially above the right side section, or the right side section is oriented at least partially above the left side section. A mobile communication device includes the keyboard. A method for inputting alphanumeric characters into a mobile communication device is also provided.
The whole thing can be found here.
What does “at least partially above” actually mean? The picture on the left answers that question. As this description targets the keyboards usage to a mobile communication device, it might be fruitful to look for another patent for a none-mobile device. In case you have some masochistic tendencies: read it here.
Both talk about one keyboard case with separated key “areas”. Nothing about both sides in cases on their own and communication (by wire or wireless) between the two. Here is an old patent (1974) describing a typewriter! that has its keyboard fully separated in two parts each for one hand. The vertical orientation is somewhat cumbersome (see the next picture on the right) but as far as I can tell: no invention on my side. But maybe there are no fees, cause it is expired? Do patents generally expire? I looked it up: in Germany a patent expires after 20 years.
To actually see the images, sketches and drawings accompanying patents it is advisable to use Google Patent Search. It allows for, in my opinion better search, and provides the pictures in a more internet friendly format then the US Patent Office. I couldn’t bring my Mac to display their TIFFs.
Additionally Google Patent Search offers a button above each patent, getting you to the “state of the art” at the time the patent was established. Pressing the button results in a meta-search. Using this meta-search, looking at the more recent past, brought me a patent from 1983. The picture on the left shows it and provides a link to the patent itself. And yet another one from 1993 (see the picture on the right). Actually were is the innovation? Maybe their are subtle things, you can find in the descriptions. It didn’t bother me that much, as to actually seek the differences out.
Nevertheless, I looked up the costs of filing a patent in Germany. 400€ fee only for the application and the examination – no guarantee it’s approved. Plus the costs (1,500€ – 4,000€) for a patent attorney wording the patents texts – which the patent office highly recommends. I guess otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to deliver a text matching the other patents texts – at least regarding the attorney mumble. Plus rising annual fees for keeping the patent up. And when you go international … the EU patent office for example, actually charges around 36,000€. Thats a lot of money, but there are currently plans to significantly reduce the fee (around 5,000€) and at the same time simplify the patent application process.
I found out a fact about patents that makes the whole idea of patenting my keyboard impossible. The German patent office gives some information on the prerequisites a patent must fulfill. One is novelty. And novelty is defined as:
Eine Erfindung ist neu, wenn sie nicht zum Stand der Technik gehört. Der Stand der Technik umfasst alle Kenntnisse, die weltweit vor der Anmeldung der betreffenden Erfindung in jeder erdenklichen Weise der Öffentlichkeit zugänglich waren. […] Auch Informationen, die Sie selbst veröffentlicht haben, zählen zum Stand der Technik. Achten Sie als Erfinder also dringend darauf, Ihre Erfindung vor der Anmeldung geheim zu halten.
It translates – hopefully I get it right as Attorney-German isn’t my mother tongue either – to something like: an invention is new when it does not belong to the state of the art. The state of the art contains all knowledge that was, at the time of the patent application, publicly available anywhere in the world in every possible way. Even information you published yourself counts to the state of the art and will prohibit a successful application.
Well I wrote everything down about my keyboard in this blog. So for me – even in case I invented something new – there is no patent possible anymore. But wait, no one could steal it and apply himself for a patent either, because I published everything. Did I get that right? I think yes, but when it is enough to publish everything to “protect” your invention from being patented by someone else and in the consequence render your own invention not freely usable by yourself and anyone else not owning the patent, where is the whole point of patents? Everyone could simply publish everything and claim ownership, depending on the associated rights he decided upon publication.
When asking a coworker what he thinks about patents in general and patenting my keyboard, he basically said this: ” … I don’t think you can apply for a patent for such a trivial thing as splitting a keyboard in two parts …” Oh well, I haven’t shown him yet how many patents I have found, which are basically build around that trivial thing. But despite this apparently wrong patentability assessment, he answered the question I raised in the previous paragraph: what are patents generally good for?
Patents exists to protect the initial investment a company or person made in inventing a novelty. So that the company or person has the chance to get the initial investment back through applying the invention in products and sell those products to the mass market (or a niche, whatever fits). The competitors are not allowed to actually compete until 20 years are over or the inventor decides to allow competition through fair licensing agreements.
The justification for all of this is, that it would be unfair if a competitor, who didn’t need to make the initial investment, competes with the original inventor, who has lost lots of money in inventing the novelty and therefore has a disadvantage. A patent is there to remove the fear, that someone else simply takes the innovation and makes products himself. In the ultimate end patents are supposed to foster the technological progression of human kind.
Strange, technological progression of human kind based on distrust in human nature. The whole concept is based on the idea that some bad guy will steal your invention and the stupid customers out there don’t care who originally thought those things out and just decide based upon the price. I don’t act like that. Do you? I think, as there might be some truly bad people out there, in most cases, provided relevant information is easily accessible, the customers won’t decide for the bad guy, just to spare a dime. I wouldn’t.
I appreciate competition and having the choice between many alternatives – may it be just slightly different solutions, though. For me the original inventor would be impossible to be beaten by a simple copy cat – even if it is a large company. In case there is nothing more to the copy than a slightly better price tag, I wouldn’t even think about going with it.
But aren’t most people like that? I still believe it.
You must admit, that when you look very closely, the products from the original inventor are simply better in some way. May it be just in some minor details or in a subjective feeling towards those products, glimpsing the labor and the love the inventor had put in his invention.
- Patents are basically “invented” for medium sized to big companies who can afford the hassle.
- I will avoid patents.
- I will stick to publish everything.
- I will stick to have good faith in my fellow humans.
I close with one question to think about: What would the world look like if there never existed the concept of a patent?