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Puzzles and Patents

Last night, my husband and I did a jigsaw puzzle. As always, we spread out the pieces and looked first for the edge pieces. Except that this puzzle was a circle, and the edge pieces weren’t so obvious. We continued working, dividing the pieces into piles by their colors and, while we were at it, looking at the very unusual shapes of the pieces. This puzzle had a few animal-shaped pieces! And the rest were full of curlicues and odd lines to match the shapes of the animals. A very unusual jigsaw puzzle, which required some new techniques to solve it.

I found myself rapidly switching between matching up colors and considering the shapes only. In the past, I would stare intensely at the pieces to match their very specific colors. Despite working only on colors, after a while, I found that I had ‘gotten to know’ the shapes of my pieces such that I could take a piece from my pile and immediately put it in the right place.

This business of getting to know the pieces worked on this new puzzle too. And, after a few hours, we had finished it. Suddenly, the beautiful pattern we were trying to put together became apparent and the individual pieces were no longer visible.

For years I have found that the only way to do a jigsaw puzzle is to work with a small group of pieces and to really get to know them. To see their picture, their colors and their shapes – how many ‘innies’ do they have and how many ‘outies’? Which way is ‘up’ for them? And I am always surprised when they fit in the puzzle differently than I had assumed when looking only at them.

Yesterday, I realized that this business of getting familiar with the puzzle pieces is what I do in patents. I can’t appreciate what is inventive until I know--until I really know--how all the details fit together.

Most of the time I do not claim those little details. Instead, I look up from the details and see the finished product, that beautiful pattern I was building when describing all those details. And I claim what is new in the finished product, whether that is the overall concept or one or more of those details I worked so hard to find and understand.

Clients don’t usually want to give us the details, since they see their invention as the broad concept. Their choices of parts often seem irrelevant to them – they feel they could have built their invention from other parts. This may be true., but it isn’t always true. Their choice of parts usually stems from a way of thinking that is often related to the broad concept, and it is often this direction of thought that helps us overcome the prior art.

You could argue that I’m wrong. After all, the same puzzle pieces could be used for a different pattern, or the same pattern could be glued onto a different set of puzzle pieces. While this is true, the process of understanding the puzzle is the same – you have to get down and dirty with the individual pieces. Looking at the final picture will never get the puzzle finished.

Nor can you produce a quality patent application if you start from the claims of a patent application and then write the text from the claims. That’s because you can’t fully grasp the broad concept of the invention before understanding its details and the details of its prior art.

And once you do intimately understand the invention, there is a joy in finding the best way to define the invention. It’s very similar to the joy which comes from an intimate knowledge of the puzzle pieces - of picking up one of the pieces in your pile and just slotting it into the right place in the puzzle!


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