Dyson on: Intellectual property — Does protecting your ideas matter?

Patents matter more than most startups realise. At one point Dyson filed for more intellectual property patents than any other company in the UK. Every great invention of the modern age needed a patent to protect it from copycats. Here are some which we think are the most interesting…

Originally published in Dyson on: on.dyson.co.uk


Apatent gives its owner a legally-enforceable monopoly to their invention. The invention could be any new and inventive solution to a technical problem; whether it’s the humble paper clip to a new pharmaceutical to developments in AI or quantum computing.

Patents play an important role in incentivising and rewarding innovation. They reward the skill and ingenuity that go into developing any invention by preventing others from using the idea covered by the patent.

This is a valuable tool for anyone in the business of innovating. For example, it is because of the potential rewards offered by a monopoly that pharmaceutical companies invest millions into research and development, including going down numerous blind alleys, in the hope of finding life-saving treatments.

The patent system also increases competition and helps others to innovate. In return for the monopoly, in order to apply for a patent inventors have to publish information about their invention, including sufficient detail for a reader to be able to make the invention for themselves. Once a patent has expired (typically after 20 years), competitors can then use the information in the patent, building on and refining the invention, to create even better products and processes.

At the same time, patents force companies in the same field to try and find different ways of doing things if they want to compete. Instead of just one advance, you may end up with two or three people trying to do something in an entirely new way.

Writing strong, water-tight patents requires a huge amount of skill and expertise. It is crucial that the patent specification makes clear where the boundaries of the inventive concept lie so as to provide a strong, enforceable monopoly.

A great amount of care must be taken to get the wording absolutely right. Small differences in wording or nuance can mean the difference between real success and total failure.

Five of history’s most interesting patents:

Exoskeleton

Date: 2014

Exoskeletons date back to an “apparatus for facilitating walking” invented by Nicholas Yagin in 1890. ReWalk, was granted a patent in 2014 for their exoskeleton which was designed to let people suffering from paralysis to relearn to walk and even climb stairs. The technology is already being used by some construction workers, soldiers, and even astronauts..

Actual Patent Name: “Locomotion assisting device and method”

Sony Walkman

Date: 1983

Sony created its Walkman audio cassette player in 1979 but didn’t apply for a patent as they believed it was inimitable. But Andreas Pavel, an inventor, had already patented his “High fidelity stereophonic reproduction system” in 1977 and sued Sony for breach of his intellectual property. Eventually had to Sony pay Pavel more than $10 million out of court.

Actual Patent Name: “High fidelity stereophonic reproduction system”

Drones

Date: 1993

The drone may seem like a relatively recent invention but it was actually patented back in 1962. An engineer called Edward G. Vanderlip created a way to prevent helicopter instruments from systemically failing. He then used the new technology to make a small, remotely-operated rotary aircraft: today referred to as a drone. Still, his patent for an “omni-directional, vertical-lift, helicopter drone” took a while to get off the ground.

Actual Patent Name: “Omni-directional, vertical-lift, helicopter drone”

Brain Implant

Date: 1962

At the end of the 19th century, doctors realised that they could make human and animal muscles move involuntarily simply by passing an electrical current through the brain. In 1993 the University of Utah patented an “implantable, integrated apparatus that contacts the brain with a plurality of metal needles to detect electrical signals or to transmit signals to the brain.” Today, brain implants can actually move robotic prosthetics or type out text on a computer by thought alone.

Actual Patent Name: “Three-dimensional electrode device”

GPS

Date: 1974

The underlying technology in GPS satellites was invented Roger L. Easton and was developed in the 1950s as a way to track orbiting satellites. Easton flipped his idea on its head by making a Global Positioning System designed to track objects on the ground from space. The first GPS data was transmitted by the Navigation Technology Satellite 2 in 1977.

Actual Patent Name: “Navigation system using satellites and passive ranging techniques”


Words: Henry Tobias Jones, Editor

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