Saturday, June 2, 2012

How can Innovators Patent Combine Ideas ?

Can we patent protect innovative ideas that we get by creatively combining old ideas ?

There are numerous instances where innovators have come up with very useful solutions by combining known concepts or existing ideas. Though cameras and mobile phones have been in existence for long, the creation of a mobile phone with inbuilt camera turned out to be a very useful product to have. The classic example of such an useful combination is pencil with an eraser at its end.

Playpumps - Water for People

Playpumps solved the water crisis and made potable available to school children in Africa by combining two old ideas - a bore well and a merry-go-round. They dug bore wells near the schools and installed merry-go-rounds over them - whenever children play there, their energy is used to draw the water and store it in a tank. Although both bore wells and merry-go-rounds are well known concepts, a critical problem could be innovatively solved by combining them.


One of the popular divergent thinking tool is SCAMPER - it is an acronym where each letter is a trigger Substitute, Combne, Adapt, Maximize or Minimize, Eliminate and Reverse. The second trigger "Combine" is all about generating incremental ideas by asking what we can combine with the existing stuff ? 

Borrowing Brilliance

There is a good back based on this approach - Borrowing Brilliance where the Author David Kord Murray argues that most breakthroughs and innovations happen when people take existing ideas and build on it. I gave a book talk on Borrowing Brilliance - more about it in the next blog.

Thus a new idea is most often a new combination of old ideas.If i come up with a new idea by combining two old ideas, will I be able to patent the new idea ?

Now let us go back the classical combine idea of pencil with eraser and look at what was considered patentable there:

 On March 30, 1858, Hymen Lipman of PhiladelphiaUSA, received the first patent for attaching an eraser to the end of a pencil. It was later invalidated because it was determined to be simply a composite of two devices rather than an entirely new product.
Historical Background:

On 30 March 1858, Hymen Lipman received the first patent for attaching an eraser to the end of a pencil. In 1862 Lipman sold his patent to Joseph Reckendorfer for $100,000, who went on to sue the pencil manufacturer Faber-Castell for infringement. In 1875, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against Reckendorfer declaring the patent invalid. (Source - Wikipedia -

Exclusivity - A patent is a grant of a right. That right is the right to exclude. This is important to understand. A patent right does not grant you the right to produce and sell your own invention -

Is a "Combine" Idea patentable ?
U.S. Supreme Court - Reckendorfer v. Faber, 92 U.S. 347 (187)  Reckendorfer v. Faber - 92 U.S. 347
A combination, to be patentable, must produce a different force, effect, or result in the combined forces or processes from that given by their separate parts. There must be a new result produced by their union; otherwise it is only an aggregation of separate elements.
A combination, therefore, which consists only of the application of a piece of rubber to one end of the same piece of wood which makes a lead pencil is not patentable.

Freedom to practice is a bigger question here - i.e even if you get a patent for your "combine idea", will you be able to practice it ?

Some IP experts suggest that the IP around combine ideas are best protected if they are in the form of accessories that can be added to existing products - an eraser shaped in a way that it could be attached to a pencil. Thus an IP strategy for "combine ideas" is to patent them in an add-on form. The pencil maker and the eraser maker will come together, share their IP and co-create the product.


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  2. A patent gives its owner the right to prevent others from making, using, importing or selling the invention without approval. Before such a right is granted, there obviously is a rigorous check on whether the process or product is inventive.