Patents received by FIRST Teams

Within the FIRST community, there has been much sharing of ideas and learning from others. Often, individuals and teams have allowed and even encouraged others to use ideas and designs without permission. Still, some ideas are novel and need to be patented. This does not cease the sharing and learning.

FIRST is changing the culture by encouraging the sharing of technical ideas. Teams are vying for awards and submitting entries into books that will be viewed by all of FIRST. There’s no need to worry that a slide in the opposite direction is taking place.

Oh… and to answer John’s question and get this thread back on topic: check team 357. They have two patent applications taking place right now, Students and mentors on that team are involved. One is for a battery mount apparatus and the other is for a bearing made for t-slot extrusion.

Andy B.

Be aware that there is a bill in Congress right now that will change the US to a “first to file” system, as the US is the only major country left in the world that is “first to invent”. This has been tried several times in the past and never has passed, but I think it is inevitable someday. It will certainly simplify the patent process a lot and eliminate a lot of time and money spent on interferences.

On the contrary, that is exactly what this thread is concerned with.

The patent system was created order to promote the creation and sharing of inventions rather than keeping them secret. It provides a period of exclusivity to the inventor as a reward for making the invention public. Without that reward, we’d likely have a lot more “magic formula” inventions that would never become available for use by society at large. If every expression of an idea were considered to be in the public domain, ideas would be a lot less valuable. There’d be little economic incentive to come up with them in the first place, and basically no incentive to share them.

One of the cultural concepts that has emerged from the teams participating in FIRST is that ideas are worth sharing. The urge to compete tends to drive teams to hold the ideas close during the competition season, but the urge to contribute means they get publicized afterwards. Team 45 was a major player in getting this started, making available complete drawings of robot subassemblies. You can find the current fruit of this in the recently published book FIRST Robotics: Behind the Design.

As a practicing patent attorney/team mentor, I think Alan has captured the essence of the patent system with his post:

In the 18th century, most of the “useful arts” were performed by individual tradesmen. The duration of a patent (the time the inventor can exclude others from practicing the invention) was calculated to give them the same benefit as if they kept the secret to themselves (it is now 20 years). However, instead of keeping the idea a secret, the inventor publishes it and it belongs to the public when the patent expires.

If a FIRST team came up with a patentable (new, non-obvious, useful) idea and wanted to license it for revenue, a patent is the best mechanism available for doing this. They could offer other FIRST teams a royalty-free license, while still charging commercial interests a market-driven royalty.

None of the other ideas discussed would achieve this combination of sharing the idea and commercializing it. A trade secret has to be kept secret and can only be commercialized through a confidential license. It can also be circumvented by reverse engineering, which is not a defense to patent infringement.

The urban legend about a poor man’s copyright has hurt a lot of inventors who thought that they were being protected. If you invent something and disclose it or try to commercialize it, you must apply for a patent within one year of that first use to file a patent application. If you wait any longer, you forfeit the right to patent it.

The witnessed written description of an idea, which is the heart of an inventor’s notebook, is important for any new idea. It serves two purposes - supports the date of invention if you file for a patent, and can help defend against someone else’s patent if it show that you invented the idea first.

Copyright only protects the expression of the idea, not the idea itself. For example, if you publish your drawings of a transmission and register the copyright, you can only stop someone else from copying your drawings. A copyright does not prevent them from building the transmission.

If anyone has questions about IP issues, they can feel free to email me directly for help.

Jim Lester - Team 1533
[email protected]