When you're looking for patentable innovations, be sure to consider improvements made to existing products. This class of patents — called improvement inventions — are issued frequently. Improvement patents can add something to an existing product, incorporate new technology into an old product, or find a new use for an existing product.
Most patents granted today are improvement patents. These patents protect the differences between a new product and previously existing products and services of the same kind. Improvement patents can be further broken down into "addition" or "substitution" inventions.
- Addition inventions. An addition invention adds something to what came before. The Gillette Mach3 razor, for example, had three blades where previous razors had two.
- Substitution inventions. Jeff Bezos, substituted the "one-click" purchasing feature for the prior virtual shopping cart model — a substitution invention.
Improvement patents can be valuable. Do not underestimate the value of improvement patents. In their book, Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want, authors Curtis R. Carlson and William W. Wilmot write that "smaller innovations can be extremely important, especially as one builds upon another."
Should you seek a patent for an improvement? Whether you should seek an improvement patent depends on whether or not the patentable differences provide you with a worthwhile competitive advantage.
For example, the third blade difference in the Gillette Mach3 razor was valuable enough to Gillette to spend untold millions advertising and distributing the new razor. Compared to those costs, the patent and litigation costs incurred in going after Schick were inconsequential.
Incorporating New Technologies into Old Products
Another way to get an improvement patent is to incorporate new technology into old products.
For example, when microprocessors became affordable, companies obtained improvement patents for existing devices that were previously controlled by analog circuitry that now use microprocessors.
New Uses for Existing Inventions
You can also get an improvement patent for an innovation that provides a new use for an existing invention. For example, in 2000, the Federal Circuit allowed a patent for the idea of using Bag Balm — an ointment normally used to soothe irritated cow udders — to treat human baldness. The court found it patentable, because it's a new use of a known composition.
To learn more about improvement and new use patents, as well other essential information to protect your company's products and processes, get Patent Savvy for Managers: Spot and Protect Valuable Innovations in Your Company, by Kirk Teska (Nolo).
If you want some advice from a lawyer, Nolo's Lawyer Directory can help you find a local intellectual property lawyer.