Bed manufacturer Auping has changed its production line and is now making face masks. As a patent attorney, I can really appreciate this kind of crisis inventiveness. What a quick changeover! I also immediately see a practical issue. How do you get a product that is so new to you designed so quickly? Where can you quickly get all the knowledge you need? Part of the answer lies in patent databases. Here you will not only find legal information about intellectual property rights, but also a tremendous amount of technical know-how. To satisfy my curiosity I conducted a small search and found a tremendous amount of information about face masks. How did I go about it? You can find out here!
Espacenet and Google Patents
Every patent applied for is published in a patent database. By searching these you cannot only find out whether your own particular innovation is novel but also to what extent you are infringing an existing patent. Auping was probably able to quickly gather technical know-how for a product that was new to them by searching these databases. I decided to put it to the test: in my attic office, I searched the Espacenet and Google Patents databases for three quarters of an hour. Why not join me on the search and see how quickly and smartly you can learn from this.
Face masks in patent databases
Thanks to an article by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) I already knew the most important classifications for face masks: A41D13/11 and A62B23/02. It is handy to start with a classification. The initial results I got based on this were interesting but far too broad. Right now, I am not looking for dust masks for industrial use, but for face masks for medical use. I added keywords like virus and disposal, and got fewer and fewer hits and more and more relevant publications. Here you can see a couple of examples together with my comments.
Am I infringing?
Can I freely apply the knowledge obtained or would I be infringing? That is a logical next question. So let's clear up one of the first misunderstandings: often there is no question of an infringement because a lot of the publications concern applications that have never resulted in a patent. What's more, on the drawings you can see a great deal of context in relation to what really matters. What is actually recorded is only a small part of all the text and drawings. So you would only be infringing if you copied exactly that innovative element from the application.
If you want to be one hundred percent safe, you can filter on publications of which the rights have expired anyway. In the case of mechanical engineering designs, the patents expire after 21 years as standard (this means that patents from before April 1999 are safe). To illustrate this, I filtered my search results for face mask material in this way.
It often turns out that a patent expired before this time, because a patent holder did not pay the annual renewal fee. You should therefore always contact your patent attorney about the legal status of a publication. He can check it for you in no time. You often have more freedom than you think.
Use a targeted approach
If you are you thinking of working outside your current field of expertise, you should take a look at the patent databases. In the first instance, do not let yourself get distracted by the legal status of publications, but continue to search for technical information in a targeted manner. Be increasingly more specific in your search terms and stick to your goal. In the second instance, you can make a distinction between what is freely available and what is subject to the intellectual property rights of others.
Let yourself be inspired and start working based on these ideas. Then, hopefully, we will have another wonderful initiative soon. Make sure you tell me all about it!