Oregon startups turn to patents

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Articles - February 2013
Monday, January 28, 2013

BY BRANDON SAWYER

0213 Data 01Working a high-stress job for a certain semiconductor company in Hillsboro, Mark Tipperreiter needed a good night’s sleep. In the nightly battle to get comfortable, he improvised a device to support the bedcovers above his feet and legs in order to relieve pressure on them and ease sleep. A friend who suffered from gout noticed his device and asked where he could get one. Tipperreiter found through research that foot and leg pain from ailments and injuries was quite common, so he decided to build a business, Blanketbooster, around his invention. But before he could, he knew he needed a patent on his simple, effective design, which would be too easy to knock off. Within three years, in November, he received a patent, which grants him a 20-year monopoly on the device, manufactured in Portland and sold online and at Relax the Back stores in the U.S. and Canada.

“It was the right choice,” he says. “It was a cost of doing business. The cost of not filing a patent in the long run would be more expensive.”

Tipperreiter’s story shows how patents can work, but the system is beset by chronic problems that are now being addressed by new laws and policies. While it’s too early to tell how exactly these reforms will impact Oregon’s innovators, they remain undeterred by the system’s flaws or its new laws, and still find value in patents.

Problems include years of application backlog, complaints of poor-quality patents, and mounting infringement litigation clogging district and appeals courts and costing companies huge sums of money and time. This has led high-tech behemoths like Intel to stockpile patents through acquisitions and flood the system with filings. Thus armed, high-profile legal battles have resulted.

Much of the strife today is rooted in a late 1990s decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to allow patents on software processes. Many of these patents should have been rejected, but examiners did not initially have the resources to properly judge them. This mountain of dubious patents has given rise to so-called “patent trolls,” firms holding large patent portfolios that don’t produce anything. Their only function is to threaten and sue accused infringers for licensing fees and damages.

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