Boon or Bane, Patenting Green Products

 

Green Living Magazine April 2014-

Have you ever watched the TV program “Shark Tank”? Inventors and business owners pitch their ideas in hopes of persuading a panel of savvy investors to give them money and, sometimes, advice on how to advance to the next step and grow their customer base. One panelist usually asks if the business has patented the product. Watch the excitement ebb away if the inventor says, “No.” Why is this? Not patenting your product before selling means that your product is subject to rapid, uncontrolled competition. Shark Tank investors and others are less likely to invest if there is no intellectual property protection to deter competitors and force them to develop their own products.

UNPROTECTED GREEN INNOVATION SUFFERS FROM LOW-COST COMPETITION

Some inventors of green products believe the best way to share their product with the world is to sell without protecting their intellectual property. Without protection, competition is likely to come quickly, but is the competition really appropriating your idea and sharing it with the world, or is it just putting out a cheaper copy? Too many times, competitors cut costs by introducing substitutions that destroy the green nature of the product. They often use less expensive production methods or materials that are not eco-friendly. While the competition floods the market with low-cost copycat versions, original innovators struggle to highlight key differences and justify the cost of their higher-quality eco-friendly products.

EXAMPLES OF PATENTED GREEN PRODUCTS

At Luther Law Firm, we get excited about taking green inventions to patent offices in the United States and overseas. We make sure that the patent examiners know all of the unexpected benefits of green inventions.

One inventor we work with has designed a water-conserving mulch that is patent-protected in the United States and in other countries. The mulch is a combination of recycled materials, including paper sludge, a paper by-product that is usually discarded in a landfill. The paper sludge consists of wood pulp fibers that are too short to be incorporated into recycled paper. The inventor found that the sludge fibers hold and slowly release large quantities of water, making it a perfect mulch for dry climates. But paper sludge is very hard to work with, so he developed a formula that includes sawdust (left over from wood product manufacturing) and other ingredients that prevent evaporation. The mulch needs thorough watering but not even half as frequently as soil without mulch, saving water, time and energy.

Another innovator is an Arizona State University engineering student who is legally protecting his green inventions. Both products involve water. One is an adapted and recycled barrel that can be used by people living in areas of the world where fetching water is difficult and can only be obtained one gallon at a time. The empty barrel can be pulled and rolled to the remote site of the water supply to be filled. Once filled, as the barrel rolls toward home, the jostled water mixes with an antimicrobial agent, so that the delivered water is also much cleaner. The innovator also designed stands to position the barrel above ground for easier dispensing.

The second protected green invention is a grate filtration system that stops trash in storm drains from entering streams and rivers. Current models become clogged with trash that washes away with significant storms. The student’s group designed wider drains as well as a series of drains that let water flow over the top, but stop the heavier waste. More importantly, the grates are movable, enabling them to be opened after a storm to remove accumulated trash and other debris.

PROTECT FIRST, THEN SELL

When you have a new green product, consider filing for a patent application before you start to sell it.  That way you avoid losing out to a first-to-file competitor or missing out altogether because of a law barring patenting a previously sold invention. A business that has spent the time and money to develop an idea or product cannot afford to let someone else take its work and make a competitive product out of it. Being first to the marketplace can be very beneficial, but it’s often temporary unless you protect your new product or service from rapid copying. Be sure to select a highly experienced patent attorney who will draft your patent application to foreclose cheap copies.

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