Sunday, June 28, 2009

Patent Thriller

The universe is much smaller than you think.

Frequently, and without fanfare, worlds collide on a daily basis that one would think could never come into each others' orbits.

No, I'm not talking about planets (although, that happens a lot more than we'll ever see). I'm speaking metaphorically, in this case, about the worlds of an aerospace giant, an entertainer, and the United States Patent Office. When these worlds collide, the deep impact isn't necessarily visible or appreciated for years (or things) to come.

Last week, the world lost three icons from the entertainment world. Ed McMahon was not only Johnny Carson's sidekick, he was a decorated war veteran, retiring with six medals at the rank of Colonel. Farrah Fawcett was not only the girl-next-door who made it big, but she put a very public lens on her battle with terminal cancer. On the same day that Farrah Fawcett died, the world also lost Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson was many things including, most certainly, a pop-culture icon. However, few people know that he was an inventor and a patent holder.

Under the laws of many countries, patents provide temporary monopoly protection on intellectual property for the owner to practice or license. Patents awarded for technology or design innovation associated with entertainment are not as rare as they might seem. In recent years, there have been shifts in the entertainment industry that have created controversy in the patent world. Michael Jackson's patent is relatively simple (and will ironically outlive him, as it currently won't expire until June of 2012).

U.S. Patent #5,255,452 describes a "Method and Means for Creating (an) Anti-Gravity Illusion". Specifically, it describes a shoe that utilizes a heel slot that can engage a special hitch (assuming you're standing on a platform equipped with one). When the hitch engages the heel slot of the shoe, a wearer of appropriate body geometry and strength can lean well past their center of gravity, without fear of falling or having an impulsive need for rhinoplasty. If you're wondering where you might have seen this shoe in practice, look no further than Michael's "Smooth Criminal" music video.

As part of the patenting process, it is required in most countries for the applicant to provide examples of what is called, "prior art". Put simply, patent applicants are asked to show why previous attempts to solve a problem or fill a need have not been as innovative as their proposed technologies or methods seek to protect. Issued patents often become essential prior art documents, as they can be used both to make, or break a case for patentability of future inventions that may have already been invented.

A patent that references or "cites" previously issued patents as part of its prior art justification can give us insights into the influence a technology has, often across industries. A subtle niche of patent research is called "citation mapping". In one example, one can map an older patent's "future" citations from its date of issuance to see what other patents it eventually would support.

Michael's patent has two forward citations. A recent one is to a shoe-related technology. The other, however, is extremely intriguing and unexpected. Understand, that prior art references are intentional. It equates, at some level, to a collaboration or partnership, albeit usually in one-direction. Who else, besides a shoe-maker you ask, would have need of Jackson's creation?

Yep. Northrop Grumman was the first thing that came to my mind, too.

U.S. Patent #5,498,161, describes an "Anti-G Suit Simulator" and references the sequined boot of innovation from three years earlier. The suit is a simulation system which simulates "realistic acceleration conditions which are normally encountered during strenuous maneuvers" as applied in this case to jet fighter operations. Jackson's patent is cited among eighteen patents which "address themselves to alleviating the problems due to G-forces".

Think about it. A critical piece of aerospace technology used in the defense of nations owes its innovation practice, in part, to the king of pop.

Now why am I suddenly thinking of Baltimore?


Dear AL said...

Now that's a story. Reminds me of an idea I've been sitting on for a while that I should submit to the patent office.

Prakasan K said...

Great post Jim. I could have never thought about MJ owning a patent especially in an area that is nowhere related to his profession. Thanks for sharing

Buzi said...

wow - That's great trivia stuff. Thanks for the post!