IP: Utility Patents

The judicial system believes that, in general, everything that is made or described can be copied by anyone else. The exceptions are those that are protected through IP law.1,2 There are several aspects to legal IP protection. From a product development viewpoint, these can be divided into technology and style. On the technology side, utility patents protect innovation in functionality and manufacturing. Utility

1 Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Thomas & Betts Corp. v. Panduit Corp.

65 F.3d 654, 1995.

2 L. A. Gear, Inc. v. Thom McAn Shoe Co. 988 F.2d 1117, 1993.

patents are the most widely understood and well-used IP tool in new product development. The benefit of a patent for a company or indi­vidual is that the government basically gives you a limited monopoly on the use of the technology. The monopoly is narrow in scope, described by the claims in the patent, and limited in time. In the United States, for example, the utility patent is valid for 20 years from the date the patent application is submitted to the patent office.

The Swiffer has two utility patents: one for the overall mop sys­tem and one for the cloths. P&G has held additional related patents that go back 25 years, already expired but providing the foundation for the Swiffer product and innovation. The patents for the Swiffer focus on the mop system, including how the mechanism attaches the cloths to the mop head. WetJet has an additional four utility patents focused on the mop structure again, but with a fluid reservoir and fluid dispenser for the cleaning soap. For the WetJet, the patents also specify the cloths, with a cleaning and absorptive layer having certain absorptive properties specified in the patent.

But there is more to the Swiffer than how it functions. Most peo­ple think of utility patents when they hear about patents or IP pro­tection. However, the style attribute can provide a powerful layer of protection for a product or service as well. The look, brand, and gen­eral association between the product and customer all can be pro­tected. In practice, there are several different methods for protecting the style of a product or service, including design patents, copyright, trademarks, and trade dress.