One of the things we patent attorneys learn is that in pretty much any area of human endeavor where there’s money to be made, someone will be profiting, and more often than not, there will be competition, which drives the competitors to innovate. Which in turn leads to the need to patent those innovations. There are whole industries out there that most people don’t even know exist, and there are patents in those industries. In other instances, the industries themselves aren’t so esoteric, but it’s still interesting to see that there are areas in those industries in which innovators are still finding their place.
I was reminded of this fact – again – recently, when buying some equipment for a backpacking trip. Human anatomy hasn’t changed in the 35 years since I was given my first external-frame backpack as a present, so the basic idea of using a frame with a belt to transfer the weight of the pack to the wearer’s hips hasn’t changed either. But the backpacks certainly have, with improved designs to help adjust the load better and to facilitate cooling of the wearer’s back (see e.g. US 8672203). Materials that didn’t exist in 1980 have likewise been utilized to make not only backpacks but other equipment, such as tents and clothing, lighter and sometimes stronger.
One of the items that I bought recently was a Camelbak 2-liter hydration pack. This is basically a plastic bag with a hose attached at one end. The bag is filled with water and placed in the backpack; the other end of the hose is positioned to be near the hiker’s mouth, facilitating drinking without the need to stop and remove a bottle from the backpack. What caught my eye as a patent person was that this particular item is marked with no fewer than seven US patents: 6032831, 6070767, 6364168 (three related patents that all claim, in one form or another, the combination of the reservoir, hose, and mouthpiece that allows water through when bitten by the user), 6497348 (claiming a similar combination but with a rotatable valve to help prevent leakage from the hose), 6820780, 7063243, and 7070075 (the last three claiming a large screw cap for the fill port, and a hard rim with a handle to form the fill port, making removal of the cap easier).
I can’t say I was surprised to see these patent markings on this item: followers of US patent litigation (and this blog) know that last year, the Federal Circuit affirmed sanctions of $200,000 against a patentee, and its New York-Israel firm, for filing a baseless suit for infringement of a hydration pack patent. I don’t know if the losing plaintiff in that case actually manufactures an item protected by the patent. In the case of Camelbak, the pouch I bought appears to be covered by the patents listed on the item – all of which are still in force, by the way. So if you’re wistful for the days of false marking suits, even if you’re a direct competitor who still has standing to bring such suits under the AIA, forget about it.
Another item I bought was something called the Bear Vault. This is a polycarbonate canister with a nylon top that screws tightly into place. As its name implies, it’s designed to keep your food away from bears, or vice versa, depending on your perspective. On my first extended backpacking trip in the Rockies (back in the dark ages), we put our food in a bag slung between two trees to keep it away from bears, but even then it was known that bears often get to such food. Now many areas require hikers to use bear-proof storage containers instead.
As a patent practitioner, what I like about the Bear Vault is that it’s one of those designs you look at and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”. Its mode of operation is pretty simple: the threads of the canister are inset slightly with a smaller diameter than the main portion of the canister, and there’s a lip around the main portion of canister opposite the place where the threads start, leaving a gap between the lip and the threads. The cap has an intermediate diameter that fits into this gap, so that when the cap is closed tightly, there’s no space between the cap and the canister for the bear to get its claws into to pry the cap off.
To prevent the cap from being unscrewed, there’s a piece of the canister that projects slightly from the lip into the gap toward the threads, and there are not one but two corresponding portions that project outwardly from the cap toward the lip. The cap deforms slightly as each of these portions of the cap are slid past the canister projection, and then snaps back into place after each portion has passed the canister projection. The result is that in order to unscrew the cap, you have to depress the cap in the area of each protrusion while unscrewing (kind of like unscrewing a child-proof medicine cap, but much harder), to allow the cap protrusions to slide past the canister protrusion.
As the video below shows, this is too much for the bears to figure out. The same is true for smaller, less intelligent critters, like ground squirrels, raccoons, and many TSA employees, which is why I left the cap ajar when putting the Bear Vault in my checked luggage.