Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Similar is not enough

As if to illustrate my point, following my last post on self-represented applicants another opinion has been recently issued by the UK IPO relating to a patent obtained by just such an applicant.  The patent in question, GB2324605 (unfortunately available online only in the pre-grant 'A' format), was granted to the applicant and inventor Mr Alan Mackinder in 2001. Mr Mackinder has since then requested and had issued two opinions under section 74A regarding infringement of his patent, the first (opinion 04/05) issued in January 2006 and the second (opinion 18/11) on 6 December 2011. Unfortunately for Mr Mackinder, both opinions have not gone the way he wanted them to.

Claim 1 of the patent as granted goes some way to explaining why Mr Mackinder has so far not succeeded.  The claim read as follows:
1. A vehicle speed limit enforcement method, utilising an integrated electronic unit using satellite positional information, for detecting, on a worldwide basis, when a vehicle exceeds a legally enforceable speed limit with levels of accuracy demanded by the law enforcement agency and on doing so will transmit a signal to the appropriate law enforcement agency indicating that the speed limit has been exceeded, the speed of the vehicle, the time the speed limit was exceeded, the date the speed limit was exceeded, the name of the driver, the location where the speed limit was exceeded, the registration number of the vehicle, the make of the vehicle and the model of the vehicle.
In his request for an opinion, Mr Mackinder alleged that an apparatus known as the "Smartbox" offered by co-operative insurance (CIS) infringed his patent. This device, based on GPS tracking technology, would, when installed in a vehicle, monitor how the vehicle was being driven and allow an insurance premium to be calculated on a 'pay-how-you-drive' basis. The device therefore had some similarities with Mr Mackinder's patented method in how it worked in practice.  The examiner, however, considered that similarity was not enough.  Claim 1 required an infringing device to do several things in response to exceeding a speed limit, most of which CIS argued quite reasonably the Smartbox did not do. Given that Mr Mackinder had, as the examiner put it, "the ultimate responsibility for the words chosen to define his monopoly", there was no doubt that the skilled addressee would understand him to have intended to limit his monopoly by including the essential feature of transmitting a signal to an appropriate law enforcement agency (which CIS clearly was not). For this, and various other reasons relating to the claim's other restrictions, the examiner did not consider the Smartbox or its method of use to constitute an infringement of the patent.

The question that inevitably comes to my mind at least is whether Mr Mackinder would have fared any better if he had been represented when prosecuting his application. It appears that the key feature of the invention was automatic enforcement of legal speed limits, so even with professional assistance it seems unlikely that he would ever have been able to enforce his patent against an insurance company. Some better claim drafting, even without the benefit of hindsight, might however have got a patent granted with a more useful scope. Unfortunately for Mr Mackinder, who has now spent in the region of £2000 in renewal fees and £400 in opinion fees on his patent, it is all now far too late. When it comes to deciding on the actual scope of a granted patent, the IPO is apparently much less willing to accommodate any weaknesses in a self-represented patentee's case than it is when the applicant is prosecuting his application. Is this a good thing? I think it most certainly is, although such applicants may not feel the same way.

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