How inventive is Inventive?

Patents – What are they?

Patents protect products and processes that involve some technical, rather than purely aesthetic, innovation. If you have a patent for something, it gives you the right to stop others from making or selling something that is covered by the patent claims.

Protect your innovation from copying

Requirements for Patentability

The main requirements for something to be patentable are that it must be novel and it must involve a so-called “inventive step”, and these two criteria are assessed against everything published or made available to the public before your patent application is filed (that’s why it’s so important to keep your innovation confidential unless and until a patent application has been filed). Put like that, it sounds like a tall order to meet these criteria, so how inventive is inventive?

It is important to be clear that your invention doesn’t have to be some great scientific breakthrough. A single novel feature that resulted from some ‘inventive activity’ can be enough, and don’t forget that if it’s worth protecting because you think others will copy it, then it is very likely that there is some “inventive step” there. For example, it might be an improvement on something that is (or has previously been) on the market. Or it could be a new use for a known device, and one of the best examples of this is, of course, the Slinky toy.

Remember this?

If you were born before the digital age, you will almost certainly remember the Slinky (and, probably, the slightly annoying, but very catchy, jingle). But did you know that it was patented by its inventor, Richard James, in 1947? Bearing in mind that the original Slinky toy was really nothing more than a helical spring, and springs of various types for all sorts of uses were well known in 1947, how could Mr James have secured a patent for one?

Apparently, he invented the Slinky toy by accident while at work as a mechanical engineer, when he dropped some coiled wires he was working with on the ground and watched them tumble end-over-end across the floor; and he thought to himself that it would make a good toy. Although helical springs, as such, were well known, it couldn’t be said to be and “obvious” idea for a toy and on that basis, he secured US Patent No. 2415012 in 1947 for “a helical spring toy which will walk on an amusement platform such as an inclined plane or set of steps from a starting point to successive lower landing points without application of external force beyond the starting force and the action of gravity”. Not quite as catchy as “it walks down stairs, alone or in pairs…”, but it did the job!

Curiouser and Curiouser…

The toy enjoyed some success in the USA in the 1940’s and 50’s, but in 1960, Mr James left his family to join a religious cult! His wife, Betty, left alone with six children to support, staked the mortgage on their home to take the Slinky toy to a toy fair in New York in 1963. Her risk paid off: it sold out and the advert (including the jingle we all know and love) aired on television for the first time that year. And the rest, as they say, is history…

Pet Slinky?

Although the original toy had lost its appeal by the 1990’s, James Industries also came up with various Slinky animals, and the most famous of these was the Slinky dog which appeared in the 1995 movie “Toy Story”, catapulting the toy into the consciousnesses of yet another generation. Not unexpectedly, the movie boosted sales of the Slinky dog (or “Slink”) and he even had a patent of his own: US Patent No. 5626505!

The moral of the story

Don’t be too quick to dismiss your innovation as ‘not inventive’ or ‘obvious’. If it hasn’t been done before and you think it’s important enough to your business to want to stop others from copying it (and muscling in on your market share), consult a patent attorney before you disclose it to anyone except in strict confidence.

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