Interesting Patent Stories

Last week we shared an informative article on What is a Patent? Click to read it here.

There are many interesting patent tales that have emerged over the years, some successful and others not so much. Here’s a round up of some of those stories:

Margaret Knight & The Humble Paper Bag

Margaret Knight was a lifelong inventor who grew up in the 1800s. When she was a child she’d visit her siblings working in textile factories and witnessed a horrible accident involving a shuttle breaking free from its pool of thread, stabbing a young boy. When she found out these types of accidents were commonplace she invented an auto-stopper device to prevent them. Even though she was only 12 years old, cotton mills throughout America adopted her safety device (which sadly, she never profited from).

When she was older she started a job in a paper bag factory, working on a machine that put together envelope-stye paper bags. There was high demand for flat bottomed paper bags but women in the factory would have to sit and hand glue them together making it incredibly labour intensive.

Seeing a need to improve this manual system, Margaret decided to design a machine that could easily manufacture flat bottomed paper bags.

Once she finished a successful prototype, she attempted to register the patent for her design and was shocked when it was rejected. A man named Charles Annan, who worked in the machine shop where Margaret was making her machine, stole her designs and patented it for himself! Margaret was able to challenge his patent filing through the use of witnesses and original blueprints she had kept. It didn’t help that Charles’ main defence in court was that she couldn’t have designed a machine like that simply because she was a woman.

Margaret went on to patent over 25 inventions throughout her life, overcoming the many challenges women inventors faced in this time period.

Next time you grab a takeaway meal in a flat bottomed paper bag – give thanks to Margaret Knight.


Dr Jonas Salk & The Polio Vaccine

On March 26th Dr Jonas Salk announced on CBS radio that he had successfully completed tests on a polio vaccine. Polio was such a devastating disease, killing thousands of people each year and leaving countless more paralysed.

Dr Salk could have made an estimated $9 billion selling his vaccine but instead he refused to patent it, giving it away for free.

The purpose of patents in the pharmaceutical industry is to foster innovation, prevent market failure, support employment in research and allow for greater investment in research. The exclusivity of patents also rewards the high risk and high costs to companies of developing new drugs.

Exclusivity is intended to promote a balance between new drug innovation and greater public access to drugs that result from generic drug competition, but this doesn’t always occur.

Many critics argue that pharmaceutical patents allow for monopolies due to market exclusivity as they face no price caps while holding patents for 20 years at a time and not all generic drug companies are able to replicate a drug once the patent expires.

Some of the reasons include:

  • “Pay for delay” agreements where a drug company pays a generic company not to launch a version of a drug.
  • Generic versions created by the original drug company as their patent nears expiration, holding further exclusivity for a period of time as the first generic drug.
  • Restricting access to samples for testing. Generic companies need access to samples to conduct bioequivalence testing to industry standards. Generic companies don’t need to conduct clinical trials like the original drug company did which is why samples are needed.

Sometimes there are issues with generic drug companies due to quality issues; contamination or not dissolving properly, as well as outright counterfeits.

Of course, it’s up to patent holders whether they wish to enforce their patent rights. Not doing so can help with drug accessibility and affordability.

During Covid-19 for example, some companies relaxed their patent exclusivity to allow others access to their drugs for clinical trials to treat coronavirus.


The Slinky

In 1943, mechanical engineer Richard James was designing a device that the Navy could use to secure equipment and shipments on ships while they rocked at sea. Apparently he dropped the coiled wires he was tinkering with on the ground.

While he watched them tumble end-over-end across the floor, inspiration hit and he thought it would make a fantastic toy for kids. It wasn’t what he set out to do but it ended up becoming a lucrative invention.

Him and his wife Betty James went to work on creating the slinky. She found its name in a dictionary as “slinky” was used to describe “sleek and sinuous in movement and outline.” They secured a small loan and pitched the toy to a huge department store to initial success that tapered down. Not long after, Richard registered the patent but had a change of heart and left his wife Betty (and their six kids) to join a religious cult, ultimately giving up on the toy he designed.

As a single mother of 6, Betty took a huge gamble on herself to mastermind the marketing of the slinky. She waged the mortgage of the family home and showcased the toy at a huge toy show in New York in 1963. The risk paid off.

To date, the slinky has sold over 250 million units.


The Power Board

In 1972, Frank Bannigan, who is the managing director of Kambrook, developed the electrical power board. This is per their website;

“Kambrook set out to make practical products designed to enhance everyday life. This philosophy quickly led to the invention in the early 1970s of Kambrook’s first major product – the 4-way power board. Frank actually developed this out of pure frustration as at the time he did not have enough power points to test his products. It was a simple, low-cost and effective solution that became a worldwide hit and remains an essential household item today.”

However, the power board wasn’t patented and it wasn’t long until this hit invention took over the marketplace with many other manufacturers making the product.

Frank Bannigan was quoted as saying;

‘I’ve probably lost millions of dollars in royalties alone. Whenever I go into a department store and see the wide range of power-boards on offer, it always comes back to haunt me.’   


Another Cautionary Tale

In 2017, the fidget spinner was one of the most popular toys around. Sales of it soared to the tens of millions and according to reports at this time, the original inventor didn’t receive a penny for her design. All because she couldn’t afford to renew the patent she held.

Check out our article on the Fidget Spinner here.

We’ve also written an article titled “What If The Internet Was Patented?” which you can check out here.


At Litton Legal we’re experts in Intellectual Property Law and can assist with any IP matters, including Patents. Check out our webpage for more information here and contact us here.