Monday, March 27, 2006

Small inventor story from Akron pertinent to eBay v. MercExchange

The Akron Beacon-Journal has an interesting story of a patent by a high school teacher, which story illustrates an aspect of the issue in eBay v. MercExchange.

As an electronics teacher at Copley High School in 1976, Howard Hale used a relevant hands-on example to motivate students in his class: a simple series of circuits connected to an auto ignition that would prevent the vehicle from being started without the completion of a few maneuvers, done in sequence.

It intrigued a number of people, but efforts to commercialize it didn't progress. Then Hale's niece, Elaine Futrell, got involved in 2004. "I kept thinking, `If we took his theory and applied today's technology to it, we could keep people who were impaired from being able to start their car,' " said Futrell, who now is CEO of Gauntlet Technology Systems, a company built around Hale's invention. The company is in the small Portage Lakes ranch house that once belonged to Futrell's grandparents.

Beyond the "tricky sequence" approach of 1976, the 2004 approach incorporates biometrics. His product uses fingerprint identification and specialized software customized to recognize each driver and lock one out of a vehicle if he or she does not complete the sequence of maneuvers in the preset amount of time. Thus, the 2004 embodiment is both a theft deterrent AND a drunk driver deterrent.

A patent lawyer stated: "When you disclose an idea without a patent or a patent pending, you're headed toward litigation. A company can always say, `You don't have a patent, and we don't think it's patentable,' and then they can take it and run with it. You can either sue them or let it go."

The lesson is, if you think you have a good idea, apply for the patent before you seek partners to help you bring the product to market.

Apropos of eBay v. MercExchange, one asks how far Mr. Hale might get if he didn't have the threat of a permanent injunction to back him up?

The patent in question is US 6,920,389, issued July 19, 2005. The nonprovisional application was filed August 19, 2004.

The first claim is

A system for use with vehicle having a vehicle ignition circuit and a plurality of vehicle function devices comprising:

a sequencing mechanism operable to receive logic inputs from each of a plurality of vehicle function devices when the vehicle function device is energized, the sequencing mechanism being operable to generate a plurality of function outputs, each of the function outputs being in a predetermined "go" logic condition only if each of the plurality of vehicle function devices are energized according to a predetermined sequence;

a timing mechanism operable to selectively provide a timing output in a predetermined "go" logic condition for a predetermined time period; and,

a gate mechanism operable to generate an ignition output responsive to each of the generated function outputs and the timing output, wherein the ignition output is in a predetermined logic "go" condition only if each of the plurality of function outputs and the timing output are in the predetermined logic "go" condition, wherein the ignition output is operable to selectively complete the vehicle ignition circuit when the ignition output is in the logic "go" condition.

No mention of biometrics in this claim, and one wonders if there is a 102(b) public use issue as to the acts in 1976 (and later)?? Time will tell.


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