Patents, Clocks, and Surprise

Patents, Clocks, and Surprise

I’ve been working on a project for a client in Manchester, NH, and while talking to one of his team via IM I mentioned I had made this Procrastinator’s Clock a few days ago. To my great surprise, he told me that the client, Jim Logan of Emergent Technologies, had already patented a similar device several years ago! This was entirely too close a coincidence, so I wracked my memory to see if I had somehow been exposed to the idea through him, and sent him an email with a link to see what his take was on it, and wondered what I’d just gotten myself into.


Coincidence and Luck

It appears to have been entirely a coincidence that I also came up with a similar clock idea (as have several others on the Internet, I’ve noted in reading the trackbacks to my original posting). Jim and I have similar interests in applying information and technology, and as he is an entrepreneurial business guy it’s not surprising that he’s already done something about it. It’s also incredibly serendipitous that ff all the patents I might have infringed, I happened to collide with the one owned by someone I’ve met recently. This has given rise to an expanded conversation too…it’s great when these kind of random events open doors. For example, I happened to meet Jim at Barcamp Manchester a few months ago because I was helping set up, and he happened to sit next to me in a panel after I had put my card up on the wall. It just goes to show how random encounters tend to organize themselves into meaningful relationships.

Jim didn’t remember disclosing anything about this patent to me in person, but still it is freaky. I know a few other people have also had the same idea as well…it’s pretty amazing that similar ideas can arise spontaneously. Emergent Technology’s patent on The Random Clock is available on their website, and if you’re interested in seeing some kind of physical device come out of this you know who to go talk to :-) I believe they are also looking for talented software developers to work with as well.

Patents and Principle

As a result of this strange encounter, I’ve also become a lot more interested in patent law and the process of invention. There was this line I read on Wikipedia that struck a particular chord (emphasis mine):

These guidelines assert that a process, including a process for doing business, must produce a concrete, useful and tangible result in order to be patentable.

These are all important ideas, and the emphasis on concrete, useful, and tangible results reminds me a lot of The Printable CEO’s Concrete Goal Tracker weighted list. This list is focused on making things that can be shown to people, since I believe that things that you could see and hold are most likely to have a positive affect on the world around you. I suspect that to really understand patent law, one must understand a philosophy of innovation, which is an interesting idea. It would also be very cool to fill out a patent application just to see what it’s like. It has a reputation of being a tedious process, but I like trying to explain process so maybe it will actually be kind of fun to try explaining some of my backburnered ideas. I’m one of those nuts who likes to write documentation and explain stuff, so maybe I’m missing my calling!


  1. Tony 17 years ago

    For a patent to be, the invention must be non-obvious. Meaning to say that if “several” people are coming up with the similar idea (as you’ve mentioned) in an isolated environment, then such a broad patent should probably not be valid.

  2. Robert 'Groby' Blum 17 years ago

    What Tony said ;)

    The idea that a clock with random skew is patent-worthy is, frankly, insulting to everybody with half a brain. Like, I’m sorry to say, most other “patents” that Emergent Tech holds.

    They’ve got a patent on the concept of a circular buffer, for crying out loud. Dated 2000 – that’s about 15 years after I learned of the concept, from a grizzled mainframe veteran who had used it since the 60’s or so.

    Yes, they call it differently – it’s a patent on pausing TV recording for an indeterminate length of time. It’s still the same. Given that the patent date is end of 2000, and that both TiVo and ReplayTV launched commercially at the 1999 CES, its non-obviousness even in the area of TV recording is at least dubious.

  3. Jeff 17 years ago

    I remember visiting a few music schools and meeting a few composers when I was young. One of them told me that he happened to write a piece of music that was extremely similar to another piece by a composer hundreds of years earlier. He couldn’t tell if he may have happened to hear that piece at one point in his life, and subconsciously recalled it, or whether it was sheer dumb luck.

    I think it’s the same concept as 1000 monkeys on 1000 typewriters eventually writing Hamlet. Especially if it’s a good idea, it’s bound to happen sometime.

  4. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Tony, Robert: Here’s a question: what IS patent-worthy? My limited understanding of patents is that they don’t allow you to protect the underlying idea or insight, but only a specific implementation. That’s where it gets sticky…what’s the difference between idea and implementation? It’s like the difference between knowing what’s right and doing what’s right, or the difference between planning and execution. I think we know that there is a difference, but since they are so closely linked it’s difficult to separate.

    That’s what I find so interesting about this topic…what is innovation, how do you measure it, and what IS protectable. That XOR patent on screen erasing comes to mind as something particularly annoying to me, but when reading this debunking of it, the issues seem less clear-cut to me.

    Jeff: That’s an interesting story, and heartening too! Thanks! The thought comes to mind if one values innovation, then not to take the first exit off the idea highway because it’s likely to be the one everyone else uses. Well, take it to see what’s there, but then keep driving and look for more tenuous that point to something more fundamental and bigger, if originality is really important. I could feel two ways about this: one, I recreated a work and I don’t know where it came from, and I have wasted time, OR I had an idea and made it tangible and put it out there. I feel really good about the latter, though finding that I may be infringing on a patent bugs me. Is everything I make going to now be a source of potential legal trouble?

    On a whim I started looking into what it takes to become a patent agent (not attorney), so I have a better idea of what’s out there.

  5. Tony 17 years ago

    A “specific implemintation” is more likely to be covered by a copyright than a patent. That’s why the latter always try to be as broad as possible, to the point of being redicilous.

    What is patent worthy? Ideally a novel idea that I would not be able to come up with myself. In practice it seems to be just about everything. This is why IP lawyers earn 6 figures / year.

  6. Robert 'Groby' Blum 17 years ago

    Unfortunately, at least software patents cover the underlying idea – because software is nothing but ideas. Which makes life for software engineers harder and harder.
    Trying to translate it into the design world: Imagine somebody could get a patent on using Pantone PMS193 (Red) in an image for any kind of horizontal separator. And now imagine a world where there are thousands of those patents. Welcome to software development….

  7. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    I think there’s probably a difference between idea as a “I wish I could…” versus idea as a “here’s an approach that I think will achieve what I wish”, but it seems like a really blurry line.

    I’m going to have to search for the “world’s most worthy patent”. This is a fascinating topic.

  8. Robert 'Groby' Blum 17 years ago

    I can certainly help on the unworthy side of patents. See:

    I think those speak volumes about our patent system

  9. Michael Montgomery 17 years ago

    As to contemporaneous invention, there is a saying that “define the problem, and you’re halfway to the solution.”

  10. Chris 17 years ago

    Patents need to claim a thing or method that is novel (new), non-obvious (not a trivial variation on something already known), and useful.  There is no requirement that it be brilliant, commercially viable, or so on.  There are a lot of patents out there on “stupid” things.

    To become a patent agent, you need to have at least a BS degree in some science or engineering field (Dave – your degree from WPI is plenty), and pass a government exam from the USPTO.  To become a patent attorney, you also have to go to law school and pass a state bar exam.

    Cheers from Oregon!

  11. Robert 'Groby' Blum 17 years ago

    Chris: Follow any of the links I posted above, and tell me they’re novel, non-obvious, and useful. They’re none of the three. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Almost none of the CS patents fulfill all three criteria. The most common violation is obviousness. (Remember Amazons “one-click” patent?)

  12. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Robert: Are you using your own subjective definitions for “novel”, “non-obvious”, and “useful”? And I’m curious if you know of any patents that DO fulfill those criteria by your measure…that would be an interesting point of comparision.

    As irked as I am by some of these patents, when I look at them in their historical context, considering what patents are supposed to accomplish in terms of government policy (and that’s what they are), I can understand that some of them may not be issued through sheer incompetence.

    For example, that cat exerciser. I was looking at the patent again through the USPTO and Google version, and noticed it was filed back in 1993. Were laser pointers are cheap and readily available then? I think that the device can be readily worked around. This is one area of interest I have now in the patent arena…what constitutes infringement versus scare tactics, and how alleged infringement is worked around. It strikes me that the main challenge is in having a good working knowledge of the patent database in a particular field, on top of enough sciency smarts to know what claims are being made specifically.

  13. Robert 'Groby' Blum 17 years ago

    I’d use the objective definitions if there were any. There aren’t. It’s up to the patent examiner, and later on, judges, to determine that.

    As for the cat laser thing – the patent is not on laser pointers themselves. It’s on using them as a cat toy. If you’ve ever had a cat and a laser pointer, you’d realize this is an obvious patent. Heck, if you’ve ever seen a cat and any kind of reflected light, you’d see it’s non-novel and obvious.

    But even assuming that it were novel and obvious, this is still a valid patent. Which is too long – it doesn’t have the desired effect of increasing innovation. Instead, it hampers it. (Come on – by now, it’s completely obvious)

    As for working around – as any lawyer tells you, don’t read up on patents at all when you’re working on things. That way, you’re at least not infringing knowingly. (No, I’m serious)

  14. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Well that’s a big relief…I was thinking I had to study all this stuff before getting on and actually MAKING stuff.