Patently Oblivious

IEEE Spectrum contributor Kirk Teska guides managers through the patent process

Patent Savvy for Managers: Spot & Protect Valuable Innovations in Your Company

By Kirk Teska; Nolo, 2007; 278 pp.; US $29.99 (paperback); ISBN: 978-1-4-133-0694-1

Even patent attorney and frequent IEEE Spectrum contributor Kirk Teska allows that patents can be a little dry. He recalls his first patent course in law school as ”the most boring class I had.”

But as I bounced through his latest book, Patent Savvy for Managers , I found it harder and harder to stay bored. I kept getting sucked in by quietly informative case studies, like the one about chewable dog toys that shows how vague language may contribute to a patent defense. While flipping through the pages I was distracted by a diagram of a Toro Corp. lawn aerator. Three pages later, I found I understood what happens when your patent claims are too broad or too narrow.

Throughout, Patent Savvy’s examples—like patentable inventions themselves—are useful, novel, and nonobvious. And entertaining. They include cubic zirconium (is it useful?), plastic leaf bags that look like jack-o’-lanterns when they’re filled (isn’t it obvious?), a collapsible escape ladder, laser eye surgery, and the aerogel used to keep crayons from melting.

There are detailed examinations of the famous Amazon one-click patent and of Gillette’s patent for the threeâ''blade razor, which may or may not have been infringed by rival Schick when it made a fourâ''blade razor. (Oddly, Gillette claimed both that its patent was infringed and that the Schick razor was much better than its own.) There’s also a chapter-long study of Research in Motion v. NTP , the case that decided the fate of the popular BlackBerry handheld—a US $612 million patent lawsuit with more ups and downs than Super Bowl XLII.

Useful sections show how to read a patent, file outside the United States, and document an invention while it’s being invented; the difference between buying and licensing patents; and the hard economics that govern such decisions as whether to contest a patent rejection. There’s even room for witty chapter titles, like ”What to Do When Your Candy Bar Melts,” and for a joke or two, like comedian Steven Wright’s one-liner ”I invented the cordless extension cord.”

The key phrase in the book’s title is ”for managers”: Teska faithfully focuses on the business side of patents. Most important, his book can help managers decide whether an innovation is worthy of a patent filing in the first place, by applying a hard-nosed cost-benefit analysis. If you manage engineers as they innovate or just want to manage your own innovations, Patent Savvy for Managers is a useful addition to your bookshelf portfolio.

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