Doing my Job

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October 17, 2005 // UPDATED 1:58 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

Walt Johnson

Reference librarian specializing in patents

Downtown Central Library

250 Marquette Ave.

So you think you have a million-dollar idea. With more than 7 million patents currently held, “chances are there’s something similar to your idea,” said reference librarian Walt Johnson.

Don’t be discouraged. While some might think everything’s been invented, Johnson said there are more and more patent applications every year. He can help figure out if your idea is truly original.

Johnson returned a year ago from a two-year fellowship at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) near Washington, D.C. Now — though he’s modest about the moniker — he’s the Downtown library’s expert on patents.

The Central Library — squatting for now at 250 Marquette Ave. — is one of 89 Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries in the country. The library has a complete collection of patents on DVD, plus a computer devoted to patent and trademarks that can perform more powerful searches than the standard Internet, Johnson said.

He leads a patent search workshop every third Friday of the month at 11:15 a.m. Johnson said most hopeful inventors are regular people — no white lab coats — with an idea they want to protect. Some are secretive about their inventions. Others want to tell him all about it and ask his opinion, which he doesn’t give. “I tell them I’m a librarian, not a patent officer or an attorney,” he said.

Some are quite energetic. “They say, ‘This is it, this is going to make me a million dollars!’ (Johnson warns people against late-night TV get-rich-quick patent infomercials.)

“I like seeing people’s enthusiasm,” Johnson said. “They’ve got the next million-dollar mousetrap.”

Despite the clich/, Johnson has never come across a “better mousetrap.” A patent search for “trap” will reveal “a very broad category that gets very specific,” he said. “Traps” includes vermin, pests — even burglars.

Johnson did see an application for a “rap trap,” which was merely a patent application written in rap form. (The USPTO examiner made the applicant re-write it.) Johnson noted that the mice themselves have been patented, too — for genetic modifications.

Johnson said most inventions are pretty normal — “utility” products or improvements on existing items. “Things that make life easy,” he said.

He gave examples of a juice box you can hang on the window of your car, or a page holder for books. (The Slinky is just a metal coil, after all.)

Johnson has had some ideas of his own, such as a “kick-stand” to prop up the cast he once wore on his leg. He’s never followed up on it, though. “I don’t think I’d have the patience,” Johnson said.

After the exhaustive search to rule out existing patents, it can be two years before the USPTO makes the decision on granting a patent.

Because of the Internet, fewer people seek Johnson’s help at the library, he said. He urges inventors to stop in or, better yet, sit in on his monthly patent search classes. (Only the Nov. 18 session remains before the a six-month gap to move the interim library’s contents to the new building.)

“People could be missing steps in the process,” he said. “You have to use the classification system to find all patents.”

Johnson also deals with trademarks. A device is patented; names and slogans such as the cell phone phrase “Can you hear me now?” are trademarked. Johnson said Harley-Davidson tried to trademark the sound of its notoriously loud motorcycles — to no avail.

If you do manage to get a patent, you can sell or license it to someone, Johnson said. However, he warned that the search and application could be the easy part. Once your patent is approved, marketing it is difficult. Few people actually do strike it rich on inventions, he said. And after 20 years, the idea is public domain — patents expire and cannot be renewed. (Trademarks expire, too, if not extended.)