All posts tagged innovation

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Thought Police: Patents, ideas and IP Australia’, June 2017

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the June 10-11 issue. Excerpt below.

    Thought Police 

    Got a great, original idea? Australia’s patent examiners will be the judge of that…

    Each weekday for the past 25 years, Colin Fitzgibbon has gone fishing. His intended daily catch is old ideas that will disprove the originality of supposedly new ideas. It is a subtle and cerebral way to spend one’s time, but as a patent examiner at IP Australia in the nation’s capital, he is tasked with ensuring that only unique and useful inventions are awarded an Australian patent. Fitzgibbon must be meticulous in his research and documentation, and sure of his arguments. Not only will much of his written work end up on the public record, but more importantly, those who are granted an ­Australian patent get the exclusive right to exploit and market their invention for up to two decades.

    The fisherman wears a blue checked shirt and black trousers. He has silver hair and blue eyes that dance back and forth across two computer monitors as he trawls international patent databases. If an applicant is attempting to claim an existing idea as their own, Fitzgibbon is tasked with reeling in the evidence. “We talk about the ocean of patent applications,” he says. “There’s lots of fish out there. How are we going to find that fish?”

    This is not to say he enjoys discovering old ideas that disprove new ones, or delights in dashing the dreams of backyard inventors — a diminishing pool. One notable side-effect of globalisation is that Australian patents now comprise a distinct minority of the ideas assessed by Fitzgibbon and his colleagues. In 2016, IP Australia received 28,394 standard patent applications; 91 per cent of those were filed by non-residents, with US nationals accounting for almost half of the total. Just 2620 applications were submitted by people living in Australia, with the CSIRO, universities and poker machine company Aristocrat among the most frequent domestic hopefuls.

    Fitzgibbon, 55, examines mechanical engineering inventions — his areas of expertise are ­agriculture and lifesaving — but refuses to deal with patent applications that involve weapons or ammunitions on moral grounds. “It’s a good job,” he says as he leans back in his chair. “It’s all about being meticulous, to make sure the applicant gets a patent that nobody else can challenge.” (If somebody disagrees with a patent being granted, they must file a notice of opposition within three months.) “Sometimes you’ll spend a week searching, at the computer seven hours a day, and you can’t find it.” At that point, a patent examiner has to wonder: “Is there something I missed the first time? Is that fish still out there, laughing at me?” says Fitzgibbon. “We’ve got tools, but we’re not perfect. There might be other fish out in the sea, but I’m guessing they’re out in the Indian, not the Pacific — or they’re hiding in the [Mariana] Trench.”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.