You Want The Truth?

Words To The Wise

Sure it's a great idea, but will a patent protect it?

One criterion that should be used in any evaluation of an invention is whether a meaningful patent can be obtained for a particular innovation. According to Donald Kelly, former director of the Office of Independent Inventors of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, "[The effectiveness of] a patent depends on the scope and breadth of the claims." For instance, a broad claim lacks details about the product design itself, while a narrow claim includes a great deal of specific information. Kelly suggests inventors perform "an analysis of the claims to see if any recited element could be eliminated or altered from the recited form and still perform the inventive function. If so, the claim is weak and can be circumvented."

Here's an example: Patent #4,969,580 happens to be for a shampoo and conditioner hanger. The first claim is 40 lines long and full of specific information-an immediate indication that the claim is too specific to be meaningful. Some of the specific items in the claim are: a hook; a support plate extending at right angles that allows the dispensing cap to extend beyond the support plate; a strap made of plastic with a loop; and raised ribs. A new product would only infringe on the patent if it included every feature mentioned in the claim. So, in this case, another product wouldn't infringe on the patent as long as it did not include raised ribs on the strap. To review the entire patent, go to and do a patent search by number.

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This article was originally published in the June 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: You Want The Truth?.

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