To patent or not to patent, that's the question

   After years of waiting, I finally received notification of a patent last week. It is for a design of a small slow sand filter for drinking water, and I came up with the idea four years ago as a response to the request for smaller systems for home use as well as low-cost units for overseas.
   I found fault with all the other designs I had seen and concluded I could make a real improvement to the "state of the art."
   I originally applied for the patent in January 2003, so it has taken almost three years for the official patent to be issued. But then it is good for 20 years, as long as I send in those maintenance fees every few years.
   To patent or not to patent? That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler to seek a patent or keep intellectual property from inquisitive minds through trade secrets, or don’t worry about it at all and just make it all public. I wrestled with these choices.
   Some people argue that you must patent to protect your invention. This is a dubious proposition in my mind. A patent is not that hard to circumvent with fairly minor changes. And then there are the costs of defending a patent against infringement. I remember reading that Buckminster Fuller paid more than $50,000 to defend a patent in a law suit. Winning such a suit, unless you are Microsoft, would break most small companies.
   Others say you shouldn’t make the things public through the patent process but keep them as trade secrets, the way soft drink manufacturers guard their recipes.
   The argument in favor of just not worrying about it suggests that the best way to protect your brand or invention is to keep it the hot item miles ahead of your competition. Let them just try to catch up.
   I personally tend to favor the latter. Partly because I think it is the most realistic approach. Beyond that, it keeps you motivated to be innovating and ahead of the herd.
   But still, I patented this design.
   Why? Credibility.
   Investors and many customers respect patents. A patent means not only that you have designed some- thing unique and useful, it also means that the U.S. government has examined your idea and agreed that it is unique and useful. For many this is a very important endorsement of an invention.
   One of the other popular wisdoms is that the average person cannot write a patent, that you need to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on patent attorneys to research and write the application, and then apply for your patent. Untrue.
   Who better understands the idea than the inventor?
   The other popular wisdom I heard was that there was nothing new under the sun and there is no way you can write and get a utility patent for something so well understood and simple as slow sand filtration. This also is untrue. Times change. We have materials available to us today that were not available 200 years ago. By using new materials it is possible to come up with unique ways to present even the best understood technologies.
   But I won’t say it is easy to get a patent.
   First, I had to do research to make sure my idea is really new and not infringing on existing patents. It used to be that you had to hire researchers to grind through books of published patents. Either that or find one of the few good archives of patents.
   Not anymore.
   With the Internet, I could go to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Web site and search for all existing active patents in my area of interest. I could read them, study the drawings, all from the convenience of my home or office. This was very time consuming and dreary reading at times, but very educational also.
   To get a patent you have to prove four things:
   Firstly, does the invention fit into one of the classifications of patentable items?
   Secondly, is it useful?
   Thirdly, is it novel — i.e., is it truly a new thing or a new approach to an old thing?
   And finally, is the invention unobvious? For example, does it have surprising benefits not obvious to someone knowledgeable in the field?
   Fortunately, my concept met all the criteria, and I’m already working on the next patent.

Humphrey Blackburn is president of Blue Future Filters, Inc. in Bellingham.



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