Monday, March 25, 2019

I'm forever blowing bubbles

Bubbles. What's not to love? There just have to be some patents on making the fun little things.

The bubble mitt

A patent came to my attention today -- one where I can't help but say, "Gee whiz, I wish I'd thought of that!" The title of the patent: "Wearable article and packaging for generating bubbles". I'll wait for everyone to return from an Amazon search before continuing.

The image below shows the miraculous and ingenious invention. On the right, we see the result when "two thin films of plastic are welded together to form an article that, in one embodiment, is sealed around most sides but open at a proximal end to form a pocket to allow entry of a body part such as a hand." Note that the inventors cleverly left open the possibility that the body part could be something other than a hand. I am positively delirious considering the body parts that I might generate bubbles with!

In a patent, it is generally a good idea to give a broad description ("a body part") and follow that up with one or more specific embodiments to cover what you intend to actually build. This way, maybe you might just be able to keep vicious competitors from selling similar items. The inventors also disclose an embodiment where "the article is sock-like and the pocket is shaped to receive a foot."

Selected figures from US Patent 10,105,618

The upper right of the drawing demonstrates the ensoapification process. That word -- ensoapification -- is my own invention. The inventors did not use that word, but they could have. The patent office recognizes the fact that inventions may contain parts or involve processes where a word doesn't yet exist. So, they are pretty much cool with inventors who make up their own words, provided that the new words are defined. Making up words for patents is one of my favorite activities.

The diagram in the lower right shows how the wearable article and packaging for generating bubbles may be used. A simple whoosh of the hand (or foot, in an alternative embodiment) creates a plethora of mirthful frothy effervescence.

A patent must be useful

One of the requirements for a patent is that it must be useful. Generally speaking, it must solve a problem with the prior art. (Prior art has nothing to do with paintings made by Richard Pryor, by the way. Prior art is fancy legal talk for "stuff that has previously been described that relates to the invention".)

So, patents usually include some verbiage about how pitiful the previous inventions were. This patent is no exception. The inventors articulate not one, not two, but three woeful limitations to other bubble making devices.

1. "[O]ne typically gets the soapy liquid on oneself and ends up a sticky mess, especially on one's hands." Egads! How do you clean a soapy mess off your hands?!?!? You can't hardly use soap!!

2. "Also, most bubble wands have a single or very few holes in the distal (blowing) end, resulting in few bubbles being produced at a time." I readily acknowledge that my distal end has only a single hole for producing bubbles.

3. "[F]or small children or the otherwise inexperienced bubble blower, often it is difficult to find the right rate of blowing to achieve good bubbles: blow too softly and nothing happens; blow too hard and the soapy film collapses and nothing happens. It can be very frustrating." I can't even count the number of parties that I have been to that were ruined by inexperienced bubble blowers!

I'm sure all would agree that society is well served by this new invention.

But wait!

Some of you may have read my blog post about a patent issued to Amazon. Those of you who read this work of art will recall that the internet was absolutely furious that Amazon had been awarded a patent for something as obvious as a white background for a photograph. You will also recall that the actual patent was not nearly as broad as that. I explained in the blog post that you have to read the claims to find out what the inventor (or assignee of the patent) actually owns the rights to.

If you are looking for an opportunity to take advantage of a loophole, I suggest you take a look at the claims.

Claim 1 of the patent includes the phrase "said article being a glove or mitten and said pocket being shaped to receive a hand". Bear in mind that to infringe on a patent, you must transgress all of the recitations in at least one claim. If you omit even one part, you are not infringing.

Further, I should explain something about claims 2 through 14 of this patent. They are all dependent claims. Each of these claims includes by reference all the parts of the corresponding independent claim, as well as further limitations. For example, claim 1 requires a pocket which is shaped to receive a hand. Dependent claim 3 further requires that "said pocket comprises at least two finger portions".

Claim 1 is the only independent claim in US Patent 1,105,618. Claim 1 includes the requirement that the wearable article and packaging for generating bubbles must be a "glove or mitten ... shaped to receive a hand". Can you see where I'm going with this?!?!

I'm pretty excited about this loophole I found. Even though the inventors specifically mentioned using a sock on the foot instead of a glove on the hand, they didn't claim it! I am free to sell a wearable sock and packaging for generating bubbles! I don't know about you, but I am picturing a parade with a row of clowns walking on their hands, generating bubbles as they wave their feet at the adulant crowds.

Caveat: The freedom to sell swim fin bubble makers is based just on this patent. Before firing up the manufacturing facility, I strongly suggest doing a full patent search.

Why did they omit the sock?

Why did the inventors (or the lawyers for the inventors) not claim a bubble maker that could be put on your tushie so that it is activated when you shake your tail feathers?

The lawyers did their job. I had a look at the initial filing of the patent, which can be found in the file wrapper and is available online. Claim 1 in the original did not include any limitations about hands and gloves or mittens. It talks about a pocket being shaped to receive a body part.

The patent examiner, who serves as a referee to block patents that aren't quite up to snuff, also did his job. I haven't read the whole file wrapper, but I would guess that the examiner looked at the prior art, and came to the conclusion that the original claim was too broad, and that the inventors' lawyers responded by adding limitations until the patent examiner yielded.

I am actually familiar with one piece of prior art that was cited by the examiner. The picture below is from a design patent filed by Steve Jernander and Ardith Clubb.

From US design patent D292,641, Cap for bubble blowing

So you see that the idea of inserting a body part into a bubble generation device is not novel. That in itself is probably not enough to keep the bubble mitt from being patented. The original claim required "at least two films of liquid resistant material", which are "sealed on at least one common edge", and which are configured for "substantially preventing "the body part" from getting wet. Ideally, the examiner must find prior art that describes all the recitations in a given claim, and there are a lot of other parts to the bubble mitt claim. I am sure the examiner did this, but I am just too lazy to read through the whole file wrapper.

You may be wondering how it is that I would know about this bubble cap patent. I'm sure you noticed that the patent issued on my birthday, but the reason I knew of the patent is that Steve Jernander was a cousin of mine.

Disclaimer: Despite my apparent claims about actually knowing something about patents, I am not a patent attorney or agent. Or anything having to do with patents, to be honest. Nothing in this blog post should be construed as being legal advice. If you are silly enough to take something from this blog post as actual advice, then my liability is limited to the amount that you paid me to read the blog post.