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The Inventor's Mentor

July 2009

 Inventing a Time Machine

As a 5 year old, I told my dad I had invented a time machine. He smiled and said, “Very good but how will you build it?” Unfazed I replied, “That’s not my job. My job is inventing; your job is to build it.” Needless to say, he never built it, but he bought me some science fiction comics about time travel which eventually led me to a career in science.

Written Description

Could I have patented my time machine? Not unless I had provided “a description in such full, clear, concise, and exact terms as to enable any person skilled in the art…to make and use the [invention]. (35USC112) Since no one can provide such a description, a time machine is, as of this time, not patentable.

An inventor, unfamiliar with patent law, may ignore this requirement. He may have a good idea but not be clear on how to build it. In describing an invention, how much detail must he provide to satisfy the 35USC112 requirement? As much as needed for any person skilled in the art to fill in the blanks.

In some cases the answer is clear: for example if the invention is a new type of automotive brakes, the inventor does not have to describe the car engine, transmission, suspension and wheels. These components are all well known and can be represented by modular blocks performing their intended function. Only the new brakes need to be described in detail.

In other cases the answer may not be as clear. In doubt it is always better to err on the side of caution and provide slightly more information than needed.

In addition to a well written description, the inventor must also describe the “best mode contemplated…of carrying out his invention.” (35USC112), that is, an example of the best method of use of the invention in the inventor’s opinion at the time he made the invention. He must also provide a drawing where neces­sary for the understanding of the subject matter sought to be patented,” (35USC113) and “drawings “must show every feature of the invention specified in the claims” 37CFR1.83(a).

Non-Patentable Ideas
To be patentable an idea must be “new and useful.” It can be a process, a machine, a manufacture or composition of matter or an improvement on an existing patent. Unless an idea satisfies these requirements it is not patentable.

1)    Unworkable Ideas: These are inventions that cannot possibly work because, given the current state of science, they violate natural laws. Perpetual motion machines and time travel machines would fit this category. Someone with such an invention would have to actually build one and demonstrate its operation to convince the patent office that he deserves a patent. In spite of Patent Office vigilance against improper awards, it has granted a few unsound patents. Two such examples are 5,860,317, 5,054,331 for space propulsion systems violating the law of conservation of momentum, and 6,960,975 for an antigravity machine.

2)    Useless Ideas: To be patentable an invention needs to be useful. For example, a DNA sequence with no known function would not be patentable.

3)    Aggregation of existing ideas: For example, the aggregation of a washing machine and a telephone is not patentable per se, unless one can prove that the utility of this assembly is greater than the sum of the utilities of each part.

4)    Nuclear Weapons: An idea only applicable to nuclear weapons is not patentable.

5)    Natural Phenomena: To be patentable, the idea must refer to a tangible item such as a machine or a process. A law of nature, a natural phenomena, and naturally-occurring products are not patentable. Einstein could not have patented his famous equation E= mc2. Of course if someone finds a new and useful way to employ a natural law, then his idea would be patentable.

6)    Abstract Ideas: Mathematical ideas such as Pythagoras theorem are not patentable. However, if an abstract idea is employed to perform something new and useful, then it may be patentable.

7)    Printed Matter: Even though the process used in printing and binding the book may be patentable, the content or ideas expressed in the book are not. They fall under copyright protection.

8)    Commercial Logos: Names and symbols fall under the Trademark Protection laws.

In case you’re contemplating inventing a time machine, be forewarned: you’ll be putting all other inventors out of business. This may very well be the last invention ever made since any future invention would be considered already invented and thus would not be patentable.


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