Let's patent air!

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Let’s patent air!


Nick Wallace’s thoughts on US Patent Attorneys.

An idea for you to consider. If Specialized take anyone to court for using the four-bar linkage and win it’ll do more to stifle mountain bike design than the UCI can ever manage:

The U.S. will allow patents on practically anything, not just things which require the originality of an invention – novel was the original word. In my previous job as a designer on aircraft cockpits we were prevented from using a 3-D situation display because some U.S. aerospace company had a patent out on the orthographic viewpoint when used for displays in aircraft cockpits. Orthographic projection isn’t anew idea – ask any draftsman – but someone in Washington had obviously never seen/heard of it.

We’re starting to see U.S. companies trying to restrict other companies, in other countries, from making things which infringe on a U.S. patent, even though said patent is not strictly an invention. Back to that orthographic projection; you can use it in a computer game, draftsmen use it all the time, but use it in an aircraft and they’ll have their lawyers onto you like a ton of bricks. In theory a U.S. patent should only apply in the U.S. but in practice it tends to be a worldwide thing.

In a mountain biking example of the former there is a universal disk brake mount on sale in the U.S. with a patented design. But the main feature of this mount is a torque arm which transfers the brake loads to the cantilever boss. The use of torque arms in braking systems is nothing new, it’s been around on motorbikes for years, and is used by British companies, notably on Hope and Cullys disk systems. So why was a patent granted by the U.S? Just because no-one else in the U.S. had done it. In theory that patent could now be used to threaten Hope/Cully and prevent them from selling something they’d been doing for a couple years.

Another example of how silly U.S. patents can get is the one Wilderness Trail Bikes hold on tyre labelling. Look closely at a WTB tyre and you’ll see that the tyre logo is printed “upside down”, so that instead of being readable when at the top of the tyre it’s readable when it’s at the bottom. So what?, you might ask. Exactly my point, changing somethings orientation is a patentable idea?!

All so very trivial so far, but it gets worse. Take for example the humble four-bar linkage, cornerstone of many a suspension design outside the field of cycling. The BMW paralever fitted to their motorcycles for example. The principal that you can’t deform a triangle but you can deform a quadrilateral has been around since Pythagorus and his mates invented geometry. So how on earth Mr Leitner, supported by Specialized was able to patent this notion in the U.S. beggars belief. The fact that Horsts design is also known as a MacPherson strut should have told someone in the patent office that this was not a novel idea – it already had a name, and one which didn’t seem to bear any resemblence to “Leitner”. The rest of the world could ignore this slip of a bureaucrats pen if Specialized, who have done so much to make mountain biking so popular all over the world, didn’t start threatening companies with court action if they didn’t start paying Specialized licence fees to use a design that was already in the public domain. There must have been some grubby lawyers bending Mike Sinyards ear in Morgan Hill to get that one through.

If you look at any four-bar suspension system and want to retain the relationship between the wheel rim and cantilever brakes it makes sense to maintain the brake bosses and hub on the same structural member (unless you’re Kona). If you still want to deform the structure you still need a pivot at the corner, and the only other place to put it is in front of the dropout. So the placement is not novel, it’s a logical progression of the design. Logical progressions are not supposed to be patentable.

Patents were designed to prevent ideas from being kept secret, so that inventions would be to the benefit of society as a whole. Let’s see some common sense and a little less abuse of the system. It’d help if those bureaucrats in Washington did a proper job instead of just rubber stamping anything passed their way. They probably don’t do it with the interests of the U.S. economy at heart – when has a bureaucrat ever bothered about efficiency so long as the tax dollars keep rolling in – it’s probably just too hard to do properly.

There’s a book “The Data Book ’83″ which shows designs for bicycles from the early 20th century. Many of the ideas crop up today – including a Bianchi fron 1915 with rear suspension, which includes !Shock! !Horror! pivots just in front of the rear dropouts!. Perhaps you could track down a copy and forward it to the U.S. patent office or the court reposnible for hearing any actions brought by Specialized. Or perhaps just to Mike Sinyard, with a polite letter asking him to come back to reality.

Silly patents:


1 The Sweet Spot. Nothing more than a patent on the best position for the pivot on a URT. So really it’s a patent on a point in space then. How exact a copy of the sweet spot does a URT have to be to infringe this patent? Are tolerances specified?

2 WTB tyre labels. A patent on the orientation of writing. Mad.

3. Curvy seatstays – also a hot topic in court right now. Hey, lets bend these tubes out of the way. Duh, people have been bending things to work better with the human form, either to stop us skinning our knuckles or to make it more comfortable, ever since we started joining bits of rock to bits of wood in order to beat each others brains out more effectively. These days it’s called ergonomics. New name, old idea.

4 That disc brake mount which claims a “unique patent pending design installs disc brakes on any bike”. Out of the five (count ‘em) bikes currently residing in our secure storage facility it will only work on two. That’s not even a 50% success rate. Should we give trading standards a ring?

5 Oleo linkage single sided front suspension. One from the Brits here courtesy of Mr Mike Burrows of Giant. Seen any aircraft nosewheel landing gear recently Mike?

6 Semi- slick tyres. Er, not sure if someone’s tried to patent this one (I’d hope Keith Bontrager of all people has more common sense than your average pit-full of California lawyers), but seeing as every bike ends up with semi-slicks after a big skid contest any pending applications should be thrown out of the patent office forthwith.

7 The saddle that claims 37 patents. “The other companies will spend years trying to get round them”, says the ad. The other companies will more likely spend years wondering how on earth you can get 37 patents onto a saddle. It’s only a place to park your arse for goodness sake.

8 WTB again. This time the “grease guard” system. Putting grease nipples onto anything that uses grease to purge out the old is not a new idea, as owners of Citroen 2CVs (designed in the late 1940s) can attest. That’s one on each kingpin, one on each half-shaft, one on each suspension bearing… The evidence suggests that we shouldn’t be praising WTB for their design ingenuity, but on their ability to get 50 year old ideas past the patent man.

9 The AheadSet ™. Appeared one year after Pace showed a threadless headset/stem combination at the bike shows.

10 The four bar linkage. The one that will either stifle mountain bike development on behalf of Mike Sinyards wallet, or one that can be used as a watershed test case that common sense, and the original ideals and concept of the invention and the patent will be re-instated.

11 The bike lights that get brighter as the night gets darker. Just like in my Junior Electronics kit. So I can build myself a similar system, but not hang it on a bike then?

Nick “It makes me so angry” Wallis

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