We live in strange times.An unwelcome guest, COVID-19, dominates our lives at this moment, disrupting our daily routines and significantly slowing down the pace of society. However,this sudden increase in spare time may have positive consequences. The mind may start to wander and creative people might get some ideas — ideas that arise in our day-to-day life but never come to fruition due to lack of time. We don’t give ourselves the time to investigate whether there might be reason to take the idea to the next level.

This may, for example, apply to those working in the field of innovation and development. You may be working towards a specific goal or developing a product or a solution to a particular problem,but the fast pace of activities simply does not give you time to explore the value of other ideas that may arise from the original idea. Ideas are therefore forgotten in the business of everyday life. Was this possibly a patentable invention that was never allowed to see the light of day? The person who got the idea will probably never find out.

About patents

Most of us have heard of patents. But what does it mean to have an invention patented? A patent confers exclusive rights to exploit an invention for a limited period of time, so it is obvious that a successful patentable idea can be enormously valuable. The main condition for granting a patent is that the invention is new, all over the world, on the date of filing and that it is a technical implementation that is sufficiently different from what is previously known. The idea itself cannot be protected,only its expression, e.g. equipment, products, methods or use. It should be noted that a patent is like any other asset that can be leased, bought and sold, so a patent holder that doesn’t have the resources to develop, produce and/or market an invention can sell or lease the patent. It is especially useful for those working in creative fields, technology or some kind of research and development to be aware of the possibility of an invention being patentable.

The most brilliant ideas are often the simplest ones

Certainly, most of the patents grantedtoday are a response to a specific technical need, as evident by the fact that the most frequent patent applicants in Iceland are Össur and Marel, large technology companies that are constantly developing new solutions in their fields.However, it is a common misunderstanding that patentable ideas must be so technically complicated and specialised that the average person has no way to understand it. On the contrary, an invention can be surprisingly simple so long as its implementation is new. Let’s look at two simple inventions that proved to be a worldwide success.

The first example is one of the best-known examples of a simple but brilliant patentable invention: the Post-it note. It’s so amazingly simple: a small piece of paper with a re-adherable strip of glue that attaches temporarily to hard surfaces, such as documents, walls or computer screens, without leaving residue. In fact, the glue on the backside of the notes was created by accident in 1968, at the American manufacturing company 3M. A scientist by the name of Spencer Silver intended to develop as trong and durable adhesive, but the result was the opposite: a “low-tack”,reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. The idea behind the Post-it label themselves came about six years later when Silver’s colleague, Arthur Fry, came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymn book during choir practice. It turned out that the glue was perfect for this purpose. No one thought of applying for a patent for the failed adhesive until Fry got his idea.

Another example of a delightfully simple patent that became essential in every household is the top down squeeze bottle.The idea comes from a man named Paul Brown, a designer who ran a small manufacturing company in the United States in the late 1980s. He ventured to ponder whether he could invent a plastic bottle closure that would open enough to allow even and controlled dispensing of the bottle’s contents when squeezed by hand. Once the pressure was released, the bottle closure would close tightly enough to ensure that no messy leakage occurred. Great idea, right? Brown poured himself into development work. Success eluded him at first. He had to borrow money from family and friends and 112 prototypes were required to capture the required effect. Let’s fast-forward a few years. NASA used the invention to create leak-proof drinking utensils for its astronauts to use in space. Baby products manufacturer Gerber used it to solve the age-old problem of leaky sippy cups. Shampoo and cosmetics manufacturers were enamoured with the invention. However, it wasn’t until 1991 that things took a radically different turn for Paul Brown. HEINZ began using the invention to develop the now world-famous upside-down plastic ketchup bottle. With his technology, Brown solved a problem familiar to most of those born before 1990: to get an appropriate amount of ketchup without having to wait or wrestle with the bottle. Brown was prudent enough to apply for a patent on his invention early in the process, and he certainly does not regret it today.

Out of crisis comes opportunity

It’s a well-known fact that crises can create new market opportunities. Wouldn’t it be ideal to use the social isolation due to COVID-19 for constructive brainstorming, or to finally find out whether the project you’re already developing might be patentable? You never know what opportunities a good idea might bring about.

The above examples, although unique and mentioned here as a matter of interest,nevertheless show that the simple should not be written off when it comes to patents.

The ISIPO handles patent issues in Iceland.The Office offers a collaborative patent search, which is intended for those who want to assess the status of inventions with regard to currently known technology. The search can be useful for those who are in the early stages of research and development, to determine the course to take with regard to potential patent protection. Further details here.

The article was first published on Visir.is on 16.04.2020

Sandra Theodóra Árnadóttir

Sandra Theodóra Árnadóttir

Legal Examiner