New Patent: Cross-Geo Calendar

Good ideas are quick and easy to create. However, it gets complicated if you want to keep your idea as your own, and if you want to make money from your idea.

If you wish to protect your good idea from other people using it without your permission, it’s wise to protect it by formalizing your idea as an “intellectual property” (I.P.). Books, movies, songs and software code can be protected.

One great way of keeping your idea protected is to keep it secret. If you never reveal what’s inside your secret box, it’s pretty hard for people to steal it! Examples of this kind of I.P. protection include the exact mix of the Kentucky Fried chicken batter, and the ingredients for Coca-Cola. A trade secret is proprietary — that’s kind of the point.

However, many people protect their ideas by describing it precisely and submitting their idea to the Patent Office. The clerks of the Patent Office check if anyone else has had the exact same idea in the past (known as “prior art”). If your idea is truly original, the office issues a patent for your original good idea, which reserves to you the right to use that idea in any manner you see fit. Fun fact — Einstein worked as a patent office clerk, evaluating patent submissions.

In the United States, the Patent Office has existed almost from the beginning of the country’s existence. The very first patent every issued was in 1790 — it was a Patent for Making Potash. By now, over 6 million patents have been issued, for everything from the air conditioner to the pencil eraser to the light bulb to components of the automobile and the modern computer. Today, many patents are issued for design innovations (think: iPhone form factor, stylus design, etc.) and, more controversially, for innovations in software, such as Amazon’s one-click purchase mechanism. The reason these patents are controversial is that creating something ephemeral like easily-updated software is dissimilar from patents on physical changes to substances, such as the filament in a light bulb or the ingredients for a battery in a car.

In the modern era though, much of our experience of the world is mediated by software, and so people protect their ideas via the U.S. Patent system. Because of the wealth of ideas, and the complexity of properly evaluating ideas through the patent office, patents do take a long time to finalize.

Here’s an example. Nearly ten years ago, in 2008, I was working with a great team at Vulcan Labs on designing a completely new operating system for mobile phones (we started in 2007, before the iPhone or Android existed).

When we were thinking about the calendar, we were working hard to maximize the tiny screen available on that generation of phones. I came up with a quick little diagram about how a calendar might be able to reflect two different time zones, or two different locations for a meeting.

On the right side would be your meetings at work, while the left side might show your commitments on the home front. Or, if you were operating in different time zones, on the right might be meetings in Paris, while on the left would be meetings in Seattle. Other more technical team members contributed to refining the idea, and figuring out how such an idea would work in the real world, on a phone. Our CEO even weighed in with his amendments about how to improve the idea. At some point, the idea ended up in a presentation to Paul Allen, and it was approved as part of our proposed product plan.

After we knew that our team planned to take this original idea to market as part of our product, we worked with our legal department to submit our idea as a “provisional patent application.” This establishes that we had the idea on a certain date, but it hasn’t yet been vetted for originality.[See footnote * ] Over the next ten years, the patent office investigated the idea to determine if this was a truly original innovation, worthy of being given a patent.

And I’m happy to announce that now, in February of 2018, our team was finally granted the patent we had sought. Here’s the actual granted patent for the idea behind multi-zone calendars and multi-geo calendars. Ironically, the team that created this idea has since dissolved and the corporate entity that sponsored the idea is no more. But the idea remains, and the patent exists in the record books for all time. (If you’d like to use this good idea… I’d advise you to contact Paul Allen’s Vulcan Labs. He now owns all the rights to this patented idea.)

Now I’m moving on to more work on my next great idea, which I’m hoping to patent for my team at Intel ! I’ll see you with another patent update on this idea…
in about 10 years or so. 

* Footnote: It’s interesting to note that writing down your idea with a date on it — and sometimes even mailing it to yourself in hard copy with a date-stamped envelope — is sufficient to protect your idea as “prior art” if someone later patents an idea similar to yours, and tries to claim it as being solely created by them, and their original work.

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