While I was in law school, I had the opportunity to work as a part-time law clerk for a patent law firm. I helped to prepare responses to office actions, perform legal research and search prior art patents. I was going to law school full-time after having been an engineer for over eight years so this was some of my first exposure to what being a patent attorney was going to be like.
One project involved reviewing patents in the areas of car alarms and anti-theft technology. This was last century, back in the early 90s, so many of the patents came from a time before the proliferation of mobile phones, tablets and (gasp!) the internet. There were references to car phones but they were described as being the size of a shoe box and built right in.
I do remember coming across one patent where the inventor had used the original stereo speakers as the basis for retro-fitting a car with an alarm system that included a motion sensing component. The inventor connected to the voice coils on the speakers and used the speaker cones as the vibration sensors. For those readers who might not understand how a speaker works, normally the speaker voice coil is driven by an input signal, e.g., music, which causes the speaker cone to vibrate, which results in sound. This inventor, however, realized that the speaker could be used “in reverse” in that whenever the speaker cone is shaken, for example, when the car is being broken into or moved, it will cause a signal on the voice coil and that signal can be detected. As a result, each of the speakers in the car became a vibration sensor as part of an anti-theft system without the need for extensive re-working or running of wires.
I thought that was a very elegant solution. Now, that may just be my geek flag flying, but I realized then that an invention doesn't have to be super complex to merit protection. There was something about this “simple” solution to a problem that earned it my respect.
I believe that this is something that we should all keep in mind. When you are conducting your patent harvesting reviews, i.e., evaluating your technology and deciding what might be the subject of a patent application to add to your portfolio, you should keep in mind that it's not always just the most complex ideas or technology that merit a patent application. Those “simple,” but important, concepts also may need to be protected.