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Do I Need to Patent My Invention?

What Is a Patent and Why Do I Need One?
One of the first things people think of when they come up with a great idea is “I should get a patent on this.” But what is a patent? A patent is simply a document describing your invention and telling everyone which parts of your invention you want to protect. A good patent describes your invention in broad terms, making it more difficult for your competitors to simply change a few things and get around your patent. As you might imagine, good patents are hard to get. If you write them too broadly, they cover things that are already out in the public. This makes it easy for your competitor to invalidate your patent. The key is to draft a patent that is narrow enough to avoid covering anything already out in the public domain, but broad enough to prevent competitors from easily circumventing your patent. This is not an easy task. Patents are so complex, that ordinary lawyers are not even allowed to get them for their clients. Patents are drafted by special patent lawyers, who receive special training, have undergraduate studies in a science and pass a special Bar exam, allowing them to practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

How Much Does a Patent Cost?
As with anything, different patents have different prices. A very narrow patent on a very simple invention might run $3,000. But it is unlikely that a $3,000 patent would get you much protection, or be easy to enforce against infringers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can pay $100,000 or more for a broad patent on a complex invention. It is important to talk to several patent lawyers to get quotes for the cost of obtaining a patent and the scope of protection they believe they can obtain for you. You will likely get a range of price quotes for your patent. Any quotes substantially below the average are likely to be too narrowly drafted to be of much value, while quotes substantially above the average are likely to be overkill. $9,000 to $12,000 is the price range you can expect for a quality patent covering a simple mechanical invention.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Patent?
For a simple mechanical invention, it may take three years or more to get your patent. While there are ways to reduce this time, these expedited options typically come with dramatically increased costs. Once you file your patent application, you can start marking your invention “patent pending.” While you cannot sue infringers while your invention is patent pending, the patent pending marking serves as a warning to competitors that you may have a patent shortly, that may force them to stop selling their infringing products immediately. Getting your patent faster is not always a good thing though. If you are still developing your invention, having the patent in the pending stage allows you to adjust the scope of your patent protection to narrow it ways that do not affect its commercial viability and broaden your scope of protection to cover aspects of your invention you may not have believed were as important early on. While you cannot add additional material to your patent application once you file it, you can adjust your scope of coverage to cover things you may have described in the original patent application, but may not have originally sought to protect. As you can see, having a detailed patent application from the start allows you adjust your scope of protection as your invention develops. This is another good reason to spend a little more time finding a patent lawyer who focuses not only on where your invention is today, but on where it may be three years from today.

Is My Invention Even Patentable?
To determine if your invention is already out in the public you can obviously Google your idea. In addition, you can conduct a cursory search of patents and patent applications at Google Patents. If you do not find anything similar in your searches, your patent lawyer is available to perform more comprehensive searches. Some of these searches include infringement searches, to determine if your invention infringes anyone else’s patent, and patentability searches to determine if your invention is patentable.

Should I Get a Patent?
From your patent lawyer’s perspective, it is always a good idea for you to pursue a patent. From your perspective, however, getting a patent is not always your best option. If your invention will only be of interest to buyers for a year or two, you are unlikely to need a patent. If your invention is similar to competitors in terms of value and maximum buyer price point, you are unlikely to need a patent. If your invention will not generate enough revenue to pay for the patent, you are unlikely to need a patent. However, if your invention will allow you to: 1) manufacture your product more cheaply than the competition; 2) provide buyers with increased value over the competition; and/or 3) allow you to charge more for your product than the competition, you may want to pursue a patent. Some important questions you should ask before pursing a patent include: What kind of annualized profit can I expect with a patent? How many years, if ever, will it be before my patent pays for itself? Are there non-infringing alternatives competing, or likely to compete, in my market space? Will my product be obsolete before the patent issues? Will less expensive “trade secret” protection suffice? Will anyone be interested in buying or licensing my technology? How you answer these questions will determine whether or not you should pursue a patent.

Do I Need a Patent Lawyer to Get My Patent?
Technically no. You do not need a patent lawyer to file your patent. Although you can file your patent application yourself, the odds of you drafting a better patent than a reputable patent lawyer are very small. The technicalities associated with preparing a patent application and arguing back and forth with the Patent Office are just too complex. You very well may end up with a patent, but it is unlikely that patent will be as broad or enforceable as that same patent drafted by a good patent lawyer. While you need a patent lawyer, it is unlikely that you need the best patent lawyer in the word. You just need the best patent lawyer for you.

How do I Pick My Patent Lawyer?
Finding the best patent lawyer for you means looking at factors like cost, skill, experience, and communication. Not surprisingly, all patents are not created equally. If you hired fifty different patent lawyers to draft a patent on your invention, all fifty patents would be different, each having a different scope of protection and enforceability. Skilled patent lawyers, who have obtained hundreds of patents for their clients, typically obtain better patents than more inexperienced patent lawyers, who have drafted fewer patents. While better patent lawyers often charge more, the best patent lawyer for you is not necessarily the most expensive. Ask around. Ask friends. Ask other lawyers. Search the internet for patent lawyers in your area. Go to the USPTO.gov Web site and see how many patents the patent lawyer has drafted. Go visit with the patent lawyer. If you like the lawyer, confirm that he or she will be the one actually drafting your patent and that he or she will not simply be passing your patent off to an inexperienced underling. Ask if the patent lawyer has experience defending patents in court. Success defending patents in court, often translates into drafting better patents. The most important thing to remember when choosing the best patent lawyer for you is that you feel comfortable working with that lawyer. You need to feel that you understand them and that they understand you. There are a lot of patent lawyers out there. Meet with as many as you can. Once you have weeded out the low end and high end lawyers, choose the one who makes you feel the most comfortable that they can address all of the concerns noted above. Spending a little more time up front picking the right patent lawyer will save you time, money, and heartache down the road.

Posted in General, Patent Law.

The Future of Artificial Intelligence in Cyborg Cybernetics

We are all familiar with the science fiction vision of cyborgs. From Luke Skywalker to the Terminator we have an idea in our heads that a cyborg is a futuristic combination of human and computer. Science fiction cyborgs are typically depicted as anthropomorphized machines that look and act, for the most part, like humans. That future is probably closer than you might think. Indeed, if you use a smart phone, you are technically a cyborg, combing your human body with the knowledge you input and output using your hand-held wireless computer.

Machines, such as robots, do a few things quickly and precisely. Humans do a very large number of things slowly and clumsily. Cyborgs can combine the efficiency of robots, with the problem-solving of humans. While there are relatively few problems a human can solve that a machine cannot be programmed to solve, many problems that companies need to solve occur so rarely, that it is inefficient to program a robot to accomplish them all. That is where the wide-ranging, albeit much less efficient, problem-solving of a human comes in handy. The cyborg is a symbiotic relationship. The cyborg can solve reoccurring problems and perform reoccurring tasks much faster than a human, and a human can solve more rare problems and perform more rare tasks than a robot.

As technology develops, we are seeing a full range of new cyborgs integrating humans with computers. Many of these task-specific cyborgs are readily distinguishable from mere humans. An example of such a task specific cyborg is detailed in Amazon’s United States Patent No. 9,280,157. Patent ‘157 describes a mobile metal cage that contains a human. The cage is designed to allow a human to safely navigate a work area populated with autonomous cybernetic robots in a setting such as an Amazon warehouse. Since these robots may or may not be programmed to identify humans in their workspace, a human simply walking into a warehouse with robots whipping by at high speed can lead to injury or death for the human.

The device described in the ‘157 patent has wheels under the cage and is controlled by the human operator inside the cage. The human can maneuver the mechanical/human cyborg to where it is needed to fix or retrieve items in the workspace. The computer monitors the other robots in the area to avoid collisions and protect the human. The system also has extensible barriers that allow the human to exit the cage while still protecting the human from nearby robots. While this particular cyborg is not in use, and is not planned to be placed into use anytime in the near future, it provides some insight into what future cyborgs might look like.

Industrial cyborgs, like Amazon’s moving human cage, combine the robot’s ability to move quickly and safely, with a human’s ability to solve unique problems. For most industrial applications, there is no need to make the cyborg look like a human. This allows designers to maximize the utility of future cyborgs to exploit the best aspects of the machine aspect of the cyborg, namely speed and precision, and the best aspects of the human, namely ready adaptation to a number of novel problems too numerous and rare to all be cybernetically programmed into the machine. So for the immediate future, it is likely that most of the industrial cyborgs being developed will look much more like Amazon’s mobile human cage than the Terminator.

While machines currently lag behind humans in the number of mundane tasks they can accomplish, the use of artificial intelligence, or computer learning, is quickly closing that gap. Within a generation, it is likely that artificial intelligence will allow machines to surpass humans in nearly every situation. Humans simply transmit information too slowly to compete. No matter how much computing power you hold in your hand, there is simply no interface that can allow you to access that power as quickly or efficiently as a computer can.

To allow humans to compete with artificial intelligence on a more even playing field, researchers are developing improved personal human machine interfaces that link your brain directly to your computer. One such system is the mesh-brain implant. Such an implant would be injected directly into your brain, to allow you to send and receive information directly to a computer. While the mesh-brain implant is still a ways off in terms of human testing, more practical, albeit less efficient, human/computer interfaces like Elon Musk’s Neuralink interface are likely to be announced as a viable product in the relatively near future.

While these personal cyborgs will look more like Terminators than industrial cyborgs like Amazon’s mobile human cage, they each have their place. Given the rapid development of human/machine interface, it is more likely than not that you will have a neural implant within your lifetime. As to whether these new interfaces will allow you to compete with the even more rapid development of artificial intelligence, that has yet to be seen.

Posted in Internet Law, Patent Law.

Why Do Intellectual Property Agreements Have to Be So Long?

Unique Problems
Why are intellectual property agreements so long when so many other agreements are only one or two pages long? The main reason is that there are a lot more things that can go wrong in an intellectual property agreement that would never arise in a typical sales agreement. A comprehensive intellectual property agreement needs to address these unique problems to prevent one party from taking advantage of the other. One situation that often arises in intellectual property agreements is the issue of guaranteed minimum sales. Without guaranteed minimum sales being required under the agreement, the exclusive “seller” may simply shelve the product and not make any sales at all. Since the agreement is exclusive no one else can make sales either. The seller can therefore effectively take the product off the market and sell its inferior product for a larger markup. A 50% royalty is meaningless if the seller never intends on selling the product in the first place.

Unknown Contingencies
Another reason intellectual property agreements are so long is to force the parties to come to an agreement regarding various situations they may not even have considered. This ensures both the parties are on the same page when it comes to the other party’s expectations as well as the metes and bounds of the agreement. Forcing the parties to agree on these contingencies up front makes expectations more attainable, thereby reducing the likelihood the parties will ever end up going to court over these contingencies down the road.

Judgment-Proof
No matter how well-written an intellectual property agreement may be, no agreement will allow you to recover money the other party does not have. The number one rule with intellectual property agreements is to not get into a deal with a “judgment-proof” party. The lack of sufficient capital raises several red flags that must be addressed. Even if you have a watertight agreement and spend all the money you have to sue the other party for breaching that watertight agreement, a multi-million dollar judgment is not worth much if the breaching party is bankrupt. Avoid getting into a business with an entity that may not have the resources to cover any damage they might cause you by breaching your agreement. In some cases you may want the intellectual property agreement to require the other party provide a bond in the amount of damage you estimate may occur.

Trust
The number two rule with intellectual property agreements is that you trust the other party. A well-written intellectual property agreement is no substitute for making sure the party with whom you are getting into business is honest and reputable. While the best case scenario is a well-written agreement AND a reputable party with a proven track-record on the other side, if you have to choose between a well-written agreement and a reputable party with a proven track-record on the other side, choose the reputable party. A little due diligence in researching the track record of the other party can save you a lot of heartache down the road. Do not sign an intellectual property agreement with a party you would not deal with on a handshake. The intellectual property agreement, even a well-written one, is simply a backup that you hope never even comes into play.

Customization
Even if you trust the other party and the other party has money to pay for a potential breach, you still need an intellectual property agreement customized to your precise deal. Unlike most boilerplate agreements, it is very rare that an intellectual property agreement written for someone else will be applicable to your proposed deal. Intellectual property, by its very nature, is unique, with unique hardships and advantages. Any agreement dealing with the license or assignment of that unique asset needs to be unique itself. By the same token, there is no reason to go overboard. The agreement need not cover every remote possibility. Adding clauses that cover contingencies that will never happen is simply padding the lawyer’s pocket and adding delay to the transaction. A tight, trimmed-down intellectual property agreement will be plenty to read and negotiate. There is no need to waste the time of either party on items that are unlikely to come into play.

A Roadmap
The primary benefit of a carefully-drafted intellectual property agreement is not that it allows you to win a case in court, which it should, but that it serves as a roadmap for the parties to follow. By confirming that both parties are in agreement on all of the unique issues relating to the license or assignment, a solid, customized intellectual property agreement dramatically reduces the likelihood of going to court in the first place. Going to court is typically only good for the lawyers. You can think of a lawsuit as you agreeing to shoot off your toe if the other party shoots off their foot. Sure, they are more unhappy than you, but you are still let without a toe. Agreeing to terms up front is much less painful than agreeing to terms after years of litigation.

Getting Everyone on the Same Page
Customized detailed agreements, especially where intellectual property is involved, make sure both parties are on the same page as to what everyone’s rights and obligations will be. Being detailed and hashing out hypotheticals right from the start may slow down the deal a little as the parties argue over things they had not considered. But resolving these issues at the beginning pays off down the road, when the parties are both making money, and not spending their money on lawyers, over what very well may be a good faith misunderstandings over who was responsible for what.

Better Contracts = Better Business
A contract is a lot like a rule book for a board game. A better rule book improves the game. Well-written rules eliminate ambiguities and allow the parties to simply play the game. A game where both parties spend all of their time arguing over rules, neither of them were clear on from the start, is no fun at all. The best written contract, like the best written rule book, is one that answers all of the questions and clarifies everything up front, so that no one ever has to look at it again and the parties can get to the business of playing the game.

Brett Trout

Posted in Choosing the Best Lawyer, Copyright Law, General, Patent Law, Trademark Law.

Iowa Lawyer Brett Trout selected for The Best Lawyers® 2019 in both Patent Law and Information Technology Law

Des Moines, Iowa patent lawyer Brett J. Trout has been selected by his peers for inclusion in the 25th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® in the practice areas of Information Technology Law and Patent Law. The Best Lawyers in America® publication is the oldest peer-reviewed publication in the legal profession. This publication strives to ensure that a Best Lawyers® listing signals not only legal expertise, but also, ethics and professionalism of the highest caliber. “Since 1983, Best Lawyers® continues to be regarded, by both professionals and the public, as the definitive guide to legal excellence in the United States.”

The Best Lawyers in America®
The 2019 Best Lawyers in America® publication covers the largest and most targeted audience of any legal profession peer-review listing. Excerpts from the Best Lawyers® publication appear in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, and more than dozens of other regional publications, reaching more than 18 million readers. Best Lawyers® selection process is based upon exhaustive and rigorous peer-review surveys. Over four million confidential evaluations, submitted by leading legal professionals, are considered in the selection process. The American Lawyer and Corporate Counsel magazine describes The Best Lawyers in America® as “the most respected referral list of attorneys in practice.”

Disclaimer
“The fact that a lawyer has been voted by his or her peers into Best Lawyers in a legal practice area does not signify that the lawyer has been certified by a state board of legal specialization in that practice area or specialty. A listing in Best Lawyers does not guarantee a desired legal result.” – Best Lawyers

Posted in Iowa Law, Patent Law.

Patent Litigation Still Brings in Huge Awards

IBM’s intellectual-property licensing business, which owns over 45,000 patents, and which brought in nearly $1.2 billion in revenue last year put one more feather in its cap last Friday. The jury in IBM v. Groupon Inc., 16-cv-122 awarded IBM $83 million in damages. In what may turn out to be even worse news for Groupon, the jury also found Groupon’s infringement to be willful, allowing the judge to triple the damage award and order Groupon to pay IBM’s attorney fees.

Despite securing more U.S. patents over the past 25 years than any other company, and investing nearly $6 billion annually in research and development, IBM v. Groupon Inc. is the first patent infringement case IBM has brought to a jury in over two decades. Why has IBM been so reticent to bring patent infringement cases to a jury? It is important to note that IBM is not alone. Between 2013 and 2015 there was a 26% drop in the number of patent infringement lawsuits filed. And there was another 22% drop in cases filed between 2015 and 2016.

One reason for the recent drop in the number of patent lawsuits filed may include the new higher pleading standards required for patent infringement lawsuits. Another reason might be the high rate at which appellate courts overturn lower court patent infringement decisions. Since 1997, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has overturned at least some aspect of lower court’s patent infringement rulings 75% of the time it reviews such cases. Another reason may be the United States Supreme Court restricting the jurisdiction of courts over patent infringers, holding that an accused infringer’s residence for purposes of jurisdiction, is the state in which the accused infringer is incorporated. Still another reason for the drop in the number of patent infringement lawsuits may be the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Octance Fitness v. Icon Health, in which the Court held that a court can force a patent holder to pay the attorney fees of a successful accused infringer if the patent infringement lawsuit stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position (considering both the governing law and the facts of the case) or the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.

While 2018 does not appear to be on track to surpass the record-breaking number of patent lawsuits filed in 2013, this massive jury award in IBM v. Groupon Inc. may signal the start of a turnaround in the recent trend of declining patent litigation.

Brett Trout

Posted in Patent Law.

Good Patents vs. Bad Patents

Are all Patents the Same?
You see it often on business investment shows like Shark Tank, “Do you have a patent on your product?” To properly value the company, the investors need to know whether or not the company has any patents. The answer to the question is typically “Yes,” “No,” or “We have a patent pending” and the discussion ends there. But does a “Yes” tell you everything you need to know? Are all patents created equal?

Unfortunately they are not. Not by a long shot. If you had one hundred patent lawyers each draft a patent on your invention it is very unlikely that any two of those patents would be the same. They would all be different, some better, some worse, each having a different scope of protection and enforcability based on the language each patent lawyer decided to use. Most people tend to think of a patent as a form a lawyer simply fills out and files with the Patent Office. In actuality, patent drafting is a mixture of art and science designed to explain how the invention works and define the metes and bounds of the protection afforded by your patent.

Defensibility
So what makes a patent “good” or “bad”? A good patent is a patent that is: 1) defensible; and 2) broad in scope. Conversely, a bad patent is a patent that is: 1) indefensible; and/or 2) narrow in scope. What makes a patent defensible? A defensible patent is a patent that is valid. Validity relates to whether there is something intrinsically wrong with the patent that makes it unenforceable against an accused infringer, regardless of whether the patent otherwise covers what the accused infringer is doing. A patent can be invalidated on many grounds. Some of the most popular ways that accused infringers invalidate patents is to show that there are items in the public domain (typically referred to as “prior art”) that the Patent Office did not have an opportunity to consider when granting the patent.

The Patent Office may not have considered the prior art in question because no one was aware of the prior art at the time. Alternatively, the Patent Office may not have considered the prior art in question because the inventor or the inventor’s patent lawyer withheld the prior art from the Patent Office. This is an important distinction. If no one was aware of the prior art at the time, the court presiding over the patent infringement lawsuit can consider whether the patent should have been granted over the newly discovered prior art and: 1) leave the patent as it is; 2) invalidate the patent; or 3) eliminate some of the broader coverage of the patent, thereby leaving a valid, albeit narrower, patent. However, if the inventor or the inventor’s patent lawyer withheld some prior art from the Patent Office, the court may invalidate the patent, as a result of the fraud committed on the Patent Office. In this case, the court can invalidate the patent even if everyone agrees the Patent Office would have granted the patent even if it had been aware of the hidden prior art.

Broad Versus Narrow Patents
Once you determine whether a patent is valid and defensible, the question becomes how broad is the patent. Everything else being equal, a broad patent is better than a narrow patent. Both a broad patent and narrow patent would stop an infringer from selling an exact knock-off of the invention. But with a narrow patent, a potential infringer may only have to change or eliminate one minor part of the invention to avoid infringement.

A broad patent, however, carves out a much larger scope of alternatives that a potential competitor must avoid to avoid infringing the patent. To avoid infringement, the potential competitor has to eliminate several critical elements of the invention to avoid infringement, making the resulting non-infringing product more expensive, less efficient, heavier, more durable, harder to maintain, and/or generally less desirable. The broader the scope of the patent, the less desirable it is for a potential competitor to make a competing product. Keeping competitors out of the market increases the price the inventor can charge for the invention covered by the patent. It may be extremely difficult for a lay person, a business owner, or even a regular lawyer to determine whether a patent is broad or narrow. A skilled patent lawyer,however, can often quickly review a patent and determine flaws that make the patent narrower than it should be and therefore susceptible to a competitor legally “designing around” the patent.

The Devil is in the Details
So why not make all patents broad? Therein lies the rub. The scope of a patent is determined by one or more “claims” of the patent. A patent claim is a one sentence description of the invention. This sentence can be short or several pages long and typically includes a list of essential elements of the invention.

Inventors are often eager to include every feature of the invention in the claim. However, by including everything and the kitchen sink in the claim, that makes the claim narrower, rather than broader. To avoid infringing the patent, a competitor need only eliminate one element from the claim. If a patent claim covered a chair, defined as a seat, some legs, a back, arms, a rocker, and a footrest, you would only have eliminate the footrest to avoid infringement.

If a patent claim has 25 elements, your competitive product that includes 24 of those 25 elements does not infringe that claim as long as you do not include that 25th element. And you can pick whichever element you want to eliminate. Therefore a good, broad patent claim includes a short list of only those elements absolutely necessary for the invention to function.

So why not just draft a very short patent claim? The problem with short patent claims is that they must not be so broad as to cover the prior art. If any prior art would infringe the patent claim, then that patent claim is invalid. The perfect patent claim therefore strikes that difficult balance between being as broad as possible without covering anything in the prior art.


Good vs. Bad Patent Lawyers

Drafting a broad defensible patent claim can take even a seasoned patent lawyer eight hours or more. That is eight hours to draft a single sentence. Drafting a good patent claim is both a science and an art. You want to include the fewest number of elements, but not so few that the claim is invalid for covering the prior art.

To strike the perfect balance, you need a skilled patent attorney. While you do not need the most expensive patent lawyer to get you the best patent, choosing the least expensive patent lawyer is a recipe for disaster. Bad patent lawyers can cut costs and speed through the patent approval process by drafting very narrow claims. Narrow claims are much easier to draft and, because narrow claims are less likely to cover the prior art, the Patent Office grants narrow claims much more quickly. Unfortunately, the client often does not realize that their patent is nearly worthless until they try to sue and competitor for selling a similar product and realize the competitor simply “designed around” the patent by eliminating one of the many elements of the narrow patent claim.

Your patent will only be as good as the patent lawyer who drafted it. Choosing a good patent lawyer can be difficult. Many of the best patent lawyers spend little or nothing on advertising their services. They instead rely on word-of-mouth and attorney referrals to find high quality clients. Finding a good patent lawyer takes more than a simple Google search. Ask around about the patent lawyer’s reputation. Ask other attorneys and inventors who have worked with the patent lawyer in the past. Finding a good patent lawyer takes a little time, but the dividends will pay off for decades.

And the next time you hear someone say they have a patent on something, just remember that all patents are not created equal. If the patent was drafted by a bad patent lawyer, it may not be worth the paper it is printed on.

Brett Trout

Posted in General, Iowa Law, Patent Law.

Board Game Patents – Monopoly

I have seen a lot of people writing online that it is not possible to obtain a patent on a board game. That is simply not true. So in the interest of correcting this widespread misconception, I have compiled a collection of ten of the most interesting board game patents:

Number 10 – Monopoly

Monopoly is the board game so nice they patented it twice, or three times, at least. While you cannot obtain a patent on an invention that has already been patented, you can get a patent on improvement to that invention which, in the case of Monopoly, happened more than once. In 1904, Elizabeth Magie Phillips patented The Landlord’s Game, which was a very early version of the board game Monopoly. Ms. Phillips’ patent expired in 1921, so she pursued and, in 1924 was awarded, a new patent on a new version of The Landlord’s Game.

Ms. Phillips’ continued to hold the patent on The Landlord’s Game until 1935. She continued to publish the game through her publisher until she sold the rights in her game to Parker Brothers in 1935 for a mere $500. Parker Brothers had no intention of selling Ms. Phillips’ game, only purchasing the rights to avoid Ms. Phillips, or any other potential purchaser of her patent, from suing Parker Brothers for selling a similar game it was much more interested in promoting. That game is the board game we know today as Monopoly. Charles Darrow patented Monopoly in 1935. Mr. Darrow’s patent covers a board game with spaces servings as rentals subject to increase by the acquisition of an additional space or spaces of the same type. Within a year, Parker Brothers was selling 20,000 Monopoly games a week, leading to Mr. Darrow becoming the first board game designer millionaire in history.

Brett Trout

Posted in General, Patent Law.

United States Patent and Trademark Office Issues 10 Millionth Patent

One Tuesday, June 19, 2018, President Trump personally signed United States Letters Patent No. 10,000,000, awarded to Raytheon Co. employee Joseph Marron for a system using “coherent ladar using intra-pixel quadrature detection.” The patented system shoots lasers at an object, determining relative speed and distance, and 3D position, based on the laser light reflected from the object.

To give you an idea of how many inventors are currently filing patents, it took over two hundred years to go from United States Letters Patent No. 1, issued in 1790 to Samuel Hopkins for a method of making potash, to United States Letters Patent No. 5,000,000, issued in 1991 to Lonnie O. Ingram, Tyrell Conway, and Flavio Alterthum, for a genetically modified strain of E. coli capable of producing ethanol from wood. It then took less than twenty years to go from United States Letters Patent No. 5,000,000 to United States Letters Patent No. 10,000,000. With about 300,000 new patents issuing annually, we may not even have to wait seventeen years to reach the next 5,000,000 patent milestone.

For more history of patent in the United States, visit the United States Patent Office.

Brett Trout

Posted in Patent Law.

Someone Stole My Board Game! (Part IV)

Part IV of a four-part series of blog posts covering intellectual property and board games.

Okay I have my patent and my intellectual property clearance, am I good to go?

In cases where a board gamer designer steals intellectual property from another designer, they need to be taken to task, held financially responsible for their theft, and enjoined from continued infringement. Patents, as well as copyright and trademark registrations make it easier to determine the exact scope of intellectual property protection a board game has. This makes it easier for other game designers to gain inspiration while avoiding infringement and for owners of the intellectual property to stop infringers. But here are more things to consider than just patents, copyrights, and trademarks.

What is protectable and what is not?

Intellectual property laws define the metes and bounds of what parts of new board games developers are allowed to protect and which parts they are not allowed to protect. Some elements that are not protectable include: items in the public domain, bare ideas, broad themes, obvious concepts, and simple phrases. One benefit of obtaining intellectual property protection on a board game is that it clearly lays out the scope of what is protected, like a specific game mechanic. It lets competitors know how far away from your board game design they have to be to avoid intellectual property infringement. The more ground-breaking your board game, the greater the intellectual property protection you have available.

Beyond the law

So you have protected the intellectual property in your board game with patents, copyrights, trademarks, etc. And you have taken steps to avoid infringing the intellectual property rights of any other board game developers. Are you in the clear? No. Even if you have crossed all of the “t”s and dotted all of the “i”s on your board game from a legal standpoint, that does not mean you no longer need to keep your eyes and ears open for theft issues. Just because you and your patent lawyer have a solid understanding of intellectual property issues as applied to board games does not mean the rest of the intent does as well. Failure to quickly address allegations of intellectual property infringement, even if unfounded, may lead to catastrophic consequences. The same social media that makes it easier for board game developers to introduce new games and reach new markets also makes it easier for misguided third-parties to rally millions of angry board gamers against you over even the smallest perceived slight, regardless of whether that slight is real or imagined.

Being right may not be enough

Part of the problem is that many board game developers do not understand the scope and limitations of intellectual property protection. Just because another board game make look like your game, or use a similar mechanic or theme does not mean that the developers of that game stole anything from you or infringe any of your intellectual property. A board game developer may see a similar board game online and claim that the second developer stole the board game idea, when in reality the designer of the similar board game may never have even have seen the first board game. It may just be a case of parallel thinking. Even if the second board game developer did obtain inspiration from the first game, nearly every board game is inspired to some extent by games that have gone before. Unfortunately, online reporters may pick up the story, and put it in front of millions of eyeballs without ever checking to see whether the second board game developer has even done anything wrong, either legally or morally. Other situations might involve a beloved co-developer of board game being dropped from a re-release of the game without a detailed explanation of why. This may lead to a needless boycott of the re-release, when the dropped co-developer actually supports the re-release.

The three-step strategy

The key is to not only get your legal ducks in a row, but to be sensitive and responsive to online issues, many of which involve social media. Even if you are right, and you did not steal anyone else’s intellectual property, taking a hard line approach toward disgruntled game board players may not be the best approach. A better approach is often to: 1) present the facts as fairly as possible; 2) encourage dialogue; and 3) be receptive to undertaking changes that, while not legally required, may eliminate the need for costly and time-consuming litigation. With this three-step strategy in hand, you may even turn a public relations nightmare into a public relations windfall. The key is to react with speed, honesty, earnest, and sympathy.

Brett Trout

Posted in Patent Law, social media, Trademark Law.

Someone Stole My Board Game! (Part III)

Part III of a four-part series of blog posts covering intellectual property and board games.

I have protected all of my intellectual property. Am I in the clear now?

You have just protected the intellectual property in your new board game, with patents, trademarks, and copyright. Are you all set? Possibly, but you still run the risk of infringing the intellectual property in someone else’s board game. Even getting a patent on your board game does not mean that your board game does not infringe a patent someone else might have on their board game. Patents do not give you the right to make the patented article. They only give you the right to stop someone else from making, using, or selling the patented article in the country covered by the patent. For instance, if there was a patent on a chair, the United States Patent Office could grant you a patent on a rocking chair, even though to make the rocking chair would infringe the older chair patent. That is because the United States Patent Office does not care if your rocking chair infringes a pre-existing patent. The United States Patent Office only cares that the invention you want to patent meets the three criteria of new, useful, and non-obvious.

What about Patent Infringement?

So even after you protect your own intellectual property, it is important to check to see if there is any other intellectual property you may be infringing. Unless your board game only has a generic name and includes only intellectual property that existed prior to 1923, you could have an infringing game on your hands. To avoid patent infringement, you can search on Google Patents and/or hire a patent lawyer to conduct a patent search for you. Although the patent lawyer’s search is probably better than a mere Google Patent search, even a patent lawyer search is no guarantee you are in the clear. Even a patent lawyer cannot search patents that were filed less than 18 months ago. This means that even if your patent lawyer finds no patents that you infringe, a patent could issue tomorrow covering one or more aspects of your board game. Even if your game uses mechanics that are decades old, there is a theoretical, albeit ridiculously small, chance that a patent application filed years ago could issue at any time and stop you from making, using, or selling your game. Since patents filed after June 8th, 1995 expire twenty years after the date they were filed, if your board game only uses obvious combinations of twenty-year-old mechanics, you are probably not going to end up infringing anyone’s patents.


Avoiding Trademark Infringement

Using someone else’s trademark on, or in connection with, a board game in a manner that is likely to cause confusion, deception, or mistake about who put out that board game generally constitutes trademark infringement. Being found liable for trademark infringement may subject you to a payment of damages for the infringement, an injunction stopping you from using the same or a similar trademark, and potentially triple damages, and the payment of the attorney’s fees the trademark owner had to spend to get you to stop. As with vetting existing patents, unless you are using a nonprotectable generic or descriptive name for your board game (in which case you cannot stop someone else from using the same name), it is very difficult to ensure there is no possibility that you will not get sued for trademark infringement based on the name of your game. While it is a relatively simple matter to check the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database for federally registered trademarks on other board games, even if the exact name of your board game does not show up on that database, there are still a few ways you may end up getting sued for trademark infringement. One way is that even if a competitor does not have the exact same name registered, they may have a similar name registered. As long as there is a likelihood consumers might be confused that your board game came from that trademark owner, you may still be liable for trademark infringement. Another way that you may be found liable for trademark infringement even if the trademark does not show up on the USPTO database is if the trademark owner did not register the trademark. As long as the trademark owner is using the trademark on similar goods they may have common law rights in the trademark, which they can assert against you. For this reason, modern trademark searches investigate not only the USPTO database, but state trademark databases, business name databases, websites, and other uses. While a full trademark search is still no guarantee you will never get sued for trademark infringement, having such a search performed gives you a pretty good idea of how likely or unlikely it is you will run into trouble.

Copyright Infringement

Copyright is a little different than patents and trademarks. With patents and trademarks whoever protects them first owns them. Also, both patents and trademarks require ongoing maintenance to prevent losing those rights. With copyright, as long as you created the work yourself, and did not steal any part of it from anyone else, you are the owner. Even if someone else, unbeknownst to you, created the exact same work before you, as long as you can prove you had no access to that prior work, you would both be entitled to copyright in the work. Now obviously if the two works are complex and identical it will be very difficult to prove lack of access, but by the same token if the works are relatively different and the prior work is relatively unknown, it may be difficult for the prior copyright owner to demonstrate the access necessary to prove infringement. One thing to be aware of with copyright is that even if you pay someone, such as a graphic designer, to produce copyrightable work for you, you still do not own the copyright in that work. To own the copyright in that work, you will need to have the author sign a copyright assignment over to you. If you negotiate this up front, it may not even add to the cost of the project. If you overlook this very important issue however, it could cost you thousands of dollars when you have to go back and get the assignment from the author when your board game publisher demands to see that you actually own all of the intellectual property associated with your board game.

An Ounce of Prevention

As you can see, taking a few small steps early on in your game development process to avoid infringing anyone else’s intellectual property may stave off a catastrophic disaster down the road. Defending an intellectual property infringement lawsuit can cost $50,000 to $3,000,000 or more, even if you win. Given the size and scope of your new board game, it may not make sense to spend tens of thousands of dollars vetting every piece of existing intellectual property your patent lawyer can find. What does make sense is to find out: 1) exactly what your options are for avoiding infringement; 2) what the costs are for each option; 3) what are the advantages of each option; and 4) what are the limitations of each option. Most patent attorneys should be able to go over this information in an initial free consultation. Once you have this information, you can then make a business decision as to which options, if any, you want to pursue. Regardless of whether you pursue all of the available options or none of them, if you receive a cease and desist letter regarding your new board game, you need to contact your intellectual property lawyer immediately. Failure to do so may escalate a relatively simple and easily addressed matter into one a case of willful infringement, potentially subjecting you to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in damages.

Next up: Part IV
Okay I have my patent and my intellectual property clearance, am I good to go?

Brett Trout

Posted in Copyright Law, Patent Law, Trademark Law.