Month: May 2014

Patents Encourage Innovation and Creativity

There are some people out there who believe that patents are stifling and that the law can be too restrictive, cutting off innovation. There are certainly some strong arguments for this – over the years, there have been some terrible patent wars that have brought companies to their knees and really made certain entities question whether or not the pursuit of invention is worth the hassle. Think of Charles Goodyear or Elias Howe Jr. who both brought patent infringement suits against their own licensees. Those kinds of cases are frustrating and cast a shadow over the idea of patents.

On the other hand, what if patents didn’t exist? What if there were no laws governing intellectual property? On one hand, you could say that there would be more open-source material out there. That people would be more willing to share their ideas. But think about human nature: we are protective. We want to make sure that we are properly credited for our ideas, and we want to be sure that our ideas are being used in the way they were originally intended. If there were no protection, we would not have these guarantees.

In all likelihood, if patents weren’t possible, people would hold their ideas close and keep them secret until they were fully developed. At least with the ability to patent work, people are free to generate an idea without even building it! They can then choose whether or not to develop it themselves, license it to someone else, or scrap it all together. The patent actually gives them freedom!

The world of intellectual property law is complicated and intimidating. It can be scary entering into the market for the first time. Just remember that patents were originally designed to protect the people with the ideas. The world needs ideas! Keep dreaming; keep innovating; and keep researching your options to get your work out there. The system will work in your favor if you let it.


Skylock By Velo Labs

Companies are going crazy over inventing products with “smart” features. Technology is being combined with so many products with the intention of improving the user experience and bringing something new and revolutionary to something familiar. Some of the “smart” products are great and can be really useful. With others, the “smart” features are less logical. 

Well, Velo Labs has done an incredible job by adding a technological feature to their new bike lock: Skylock.

Skylock at first glance is a simple U-lock like you find on many bikes these days. Upon closer inspection, you can see a panel on it that other U-locks don’t have. This panel enables users to link their locks to a smartphone app via Bluetooth. As you approach your bike, the lock senses your presence using a proximity feature in the app, and your lock opens. It also gives you the opportunity to enter a passcode right on the lock if your phone is not with you. This means that you no longer have to worry about carrying keys around!

Additionally, the app uses an accelerometer to detect sharp changes in speed. This could indicate that you have fallen off your bike, so it immediately pulls up a one-touch method for requesting help. 

Finally, Skylock allows you to share with your friends. Say your bike is parked on the other side of campus and your friend is going to be over there later in the day. You can send your friend a code that gives them a one-time pass to unlock your bike, or even give their smartphone access to the app as well, and they can unlock it for you and bring it to you. Convenient for both of you!

The Skylock is expensive, but they just launched a crowdfunding campaign that will help it to be much more affordable. If this concept becomes popular, the price may eventually come down even more.

This is how smart technology should be done – taking a product we all know, understand, and need, and then making it better. In the case of Skylock, it helps deter theft, protects riders’ safety, and creates convenience. This is what good inventions are all about. Skylock is definitely a winner.

Amazon’s “Taking Pictures” Patent

Sometimes companies are granted patents that leave people scratching their heads. A perfect example is the patent Amazon received in 2011 for taking photos. The exact language of the patent is as follows:

a background comprising a white cyclorama; a front light source positioned in a longitudinal axis intersecting the background, the longitudinal axis further being substantially perpendicular to a surface of the white cyclorama; an image capture position located between the background and the front light source in the longitudinal axis, the image capture position comprising at least one image capture device equipped with an eighty-five millimeter lens, the at least one image capture device further configured with an ISO setting of about three hundred twenty and an f-stop value of about 5.6″

Put in simple terms – these are the instructions for taking a photo against a while background. Why on earth would Amazon feel the need to file a patent like this?

It all comes down to intellectual property and protecting yourself. Think about what Amazon does – they sell products online. That is their entire business. They need to be able to present consistently high-quality product photos to their customers, or their services will lose their appeal. Amazon’s entire business model depends on their ability to show off their products in an attractive way. When you look at it from that perspective, it absolutely makes sense that they would want to patent the exact process they use to do this.

Because the process is so specific, it’s unlikely that anyone out there who also happens to take product photos is going to replicate this process down to the absolute specifications. In other words, photography studios likely do not need to be worried that Amazon’s legal team is after them. Amazon seems to just be doing their due diligence by protecting something they hold dear. Not everyone agrees that this patent is necessary or helpful, as they have been publicly criticized for filing it in the first place, but from an intellectual property standpoint, it is not that far-fetched.

What do you think? Do patents like this protect things that should be protected? Or are the critics right that this somehow hinders innovation by placing unnecessary restrictions on things?

Private Companies and University Patents

Attending a premier university and having the opportunity to do some cutting-edge research and innovation is the dream of many of us. College, especially at a top-tier or well-funded school, opens so many doors for us to pursue fields we are passionate about. We are able to get our hands our resources we would not otherwise have access to, and that is incredible.

The problem lies in a relatively new trend of universities taking the outstanding research done by their students and patenting it themselves. It makes sense – research done with university resources should be university property. Most people don’t have a problem with that concept. At the same time, when said universities then go and sell these patents to unscrupulous companies, problems emerge. Do the original researchers and innovators get credit for their work? Do they get any say in what happens to the research they’ve done? Generally, no.

For example, universities in the past have sold groundbreaking medical patents to pharmaceutical companies. The companies have then gone on to charge exorbitant prices for their products and have taken all the profits for themselves. The original students who discovered and developed the procedures have gone uncredited and uncompensated. It’s frustrating to think about, but it happens.

It’s a tough position to be in – as a student at a university, you are essentially giving up all the rights to your work, because it technically belongs to the institution. They are technically free to do as they please with it. It’s just important to know this ahead of time so that you can make informed decisions about how you go about your research. Knowing the pitfalls of having a university own the patent to your work is crucial. 

For those of you who may already be at the university level, talk to your research assistants and professors. Ask some questions so that you can have some control over the process. If you haven’t gone off to college yet, just go into it with your eyes open. Do not be discouraged from doing research – that’s a huge part of what you’re there to do – but again, ask questions. Learn what happens to students’ work. Find out everything you can. It will be an immense learning experience so you can hopefully go on to apply for your own patents down the road.


The Beam Robot

It is so much fun to read about inventions and to see how innovators are truly pushing the envelope of what’s possible. Do you remember when you would see a piece of technology in an older movie and think, “that’s ridiculous. That will never exist.” Look at smartphones. Look at Google Glass. These are concepts that we could barely even dream up a few decades ago. Now, they are realities.

Enter, the Beam Robot. This is an incredible technological invention that is absolutely the kind of thing you might have seen in an older sci-fi movie. It is a robotic structure with an attached screen that can be controlled remotely via Wi-Fi. It’s officially labeled as a “telepresence device.” In other words, you can sit at home and control your Beam Robot (while using your webcam to display your face), and go communicate with your colleagues (or bug them or spy on them!) as if you were physically in the office. It’s brilliant!

You can use speakers on the device to both listen to and participate in conversations, and the camera allows you to see where you are going so you don’t run the robot into any walls or run over people’s feet. It moves quietly (according to those who have tested it out), and allows you to sneak into offices virtually unnoticed. 

While there are still some kinks – some have experienced minor connectivity hiccups, and others have noted that it is a little more difficult to interpret typical social cues from a camera alone – this technology really is revolutionary. Think of the applications for people who are out sick for long periods of time. Think of what this could do for the future of telecommuting. Suddenly, images come to mind of no one actually being in the office, and rather an entire conference room being full of Beam Robots all conversing with one another!

This could be the new wave of people being able to conduct business across national and international borders. It will be exciting to see how this develops over time.