Patents and Novelty


This is a transcript from a section of the course “Patents 340 – Invention Rating Checklist,” which is available here at IP.Education.

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Novelty is one of the requirements for getting a patent.

In the US, the requirement is that the invention be novel and non-obvious.

In the checklist, we roll both concepts into a single factor called “novelty.”

Novel simply means that nobody has done this in the past.

It is kind of a binary function: either someone has done it before or not.

Non-obviousness is much more ephemeral thing.

In Europe and other countries, they talk about whether there was an “inventive step” in creating the invention.

Let’s say we are designing a boat.

The conventional wisdom is that long and skinny boats are fast, but unstable.

Short, fat boats are stable, but not fast.

The longer and skinnier the boat, the less stable it is, but I have to sacrifice speed if I want stability.

The conventional wisdom is a quandary.

It is a tradeoff where I have to sacrifice one factor to get another.

A non-obvious solution would be to build a catamaran, which uses two, long, skinny hulls but is remarkably stable.

I am giving you a simple example of non-obviousness, where the invention goes against the conventional wisdom.

In the checklist, novelty is shown on a five point scale.

As an aside, I pulled this information from TRIZICS by Gordon Cameron, which I highly recommend for all inventors.

In the book, a study was conducted by G.S. Alshuller who invented a method of inventing called TRIZ.

Alshuller analyzed thousands of patents, and classified the patents using this rating scale for novelty.

On one end of the spectrum, at level 1, is an obvious, routine solution.

If we were experimenting, it would take us about 10 trials to figure it out.

Alshulter’s assessment is that 32% of all patents fall into this category.

At level 2, the solution is not well known in industry and requires some creative thinking.

This represents 45% of all patents and up to 100 trials to figure out.

Level 3 novelty applies engineering knowledge from other industries or technologies.

This represents 18% of all patents and 1000 trials.

Level 4 novelty uses science that is new to the industry or technology.

Only 4% of all patents fit in this category and would take 10,000 trials to achieve.

Level 5 novelty is brand new scientific phenomena that is applied to the problem.

Less than 1% of the patents fall into this category.

Over ten million trials would be required in this level.

In the novelty analysis, these criteria are reasonably well described so that an objective analysis will put the invention in pretty much the same category.

How would I rate Edison’s lightbulb invention?

I would probably rate it a three because it took him about 1000 trials to figure out the right filament for the lightbulb.

How about Apple’s “slide to unlock” patent, which is one of Apple’s most valuable patents?

This might be a level 2 on the scale.

When you look at the percentages, 77% of all patents – over three quarters – are in the level 1 or level 2 categories.

Novelty is not necessarily the hill to die on.

There are plenty of level 1 or level 2 patents that have tremendous economic value.

And there are plenty of level 3 or level 4 or even level 5 patents that are utterly worthless.

One way to use the novelty scale is to think about solving a problem using technologies from other industries.

Could you use something from the textile industry to build a database search algorithm?

Could you take your grandmother’s cooking technique and apply it to making some chemical reagent?

Often times, an engineer might see something in one industry that they can apply to their’s.

Novelty is just the first test – but not the most important test  – of whether an invention is worth a patent.

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