Do these Award Winning Designs Infringe Patents?
An interesting discussion between KK, the designer of the Chronotebook, and Scott a designer cum patent agent, has highlighted a potentially huge problem with concept design awards such as Muji Awards 02 and Red-Dot Concept.
Should the awards jury conduct patent searches on the winning products? And if a winning product is found to infringe a patent what happens then? This problem can only multiply as, in the recent years, there have been a huge growth in numbers of such awards, so much so you could enter one almost every month! Fortunately as I know KK personally, I do not doubt his integrity or his design ability to independently come up with a similar concept.
Out of curiosity, I have posted the images of the award winning designs and the supposed patents they infringe. After the images, you can find a quote of Scott’s well articulated discription on what does or does not infringe a patent so that you have it all in one convenient place. Do take study the images and the links to the patent descriptions, as I am interested to know your opinions on this matter?
Muji Award 02 Gold Prize: Towel with Further Options
By: NIIMI [Takuya Niimi/Yuki Niimi] (Japan)
Patent 5004637: Sanitary tearing towel
By: Chuen-Rong Liao
Muji Award 02 Judges’ Prize: Chronotebook
By: Wong Kok Keong
Patent 6593942: Event programming guide
By: Dennis Bushmitch et al
First, let’s take a look at your daily planner. From a patent point of view, you may be able to capture some patent protection on some specific features, such as the daytime and nighttime indicators, but since the concept of using the graphic of a clock to graphically convey information about the analog clock is shown in the prior art (the ‘942 patent), you will have a heck of a time getting meaningful utility patent protection for this item.
To get a patent, the invention has to meet three basic criteria – novelty (is it new), utility (does it have a use) and nonobviousness. This last one catches many wannabee inventions. Your invention could be considered “new” in that no one has applied the above concept to paper-versions of daily planners and it does have utility, but in my opinion, much of what you show would be obvious in view of the ‘942 patent (which uses an analog clock graphic to convey information that relates to particular times about the clock). The fact that the ‘942 conveys this information electronically on a screen doesn’t matter since the concept is shown and also because paper media is strongly connected to electronic displays since the latter followed directly from the former as a means of replacing many of the things we used to do with the former.
Also, clocks are known to be made from chalkboard so that the user can write appointment information directly on the surface in the same way, using the clock graphic as a means of conveying the event about the clock (I’ll send you an example of this to your email).
With regards to the towel, I respect the “spirit” of the design, but the patent office looks at structure of an invention and what a patent specification teaches to one of ordinary skill in the art. In this case, the prior art teaches that a towel may be made with a tear-line so that a user can tear off a piece of towel. Even if the inventor states a different reasone why the user should tear it off (because one section has been used and should be thrown away), it doesn’t matter since both towels include guide lines or tear lines meant to remove one section of the towel from the larger towel. The structure is similar. The fact that the MUJI version offers only guidelines instead of pre-cut lines could be patentable since the strength of the towel is not compromised and also, the MUJI towel provides reinforcement along those guide lines so cuts won’t fray. My point here is that the concept of doing this is known, the finer details may be new.
Interesting food for thought on your next project eh? It is for me, as this has kept me awake to 2.51 am!
Brian Ling (Design Sojourn)
Brian is a multidisciplinary Design Leader with more than 18 years of experience leading strategic design programs that drives successful Brands and Fortune 500 businesses such as GE, Philips, Nakamichi, Flextronics, Ericsson, Hannspree, and HP. His passion is in helping organisations leverage on Design Driven Innovation to make people’s lives better.