From guarding against drowning to fighting pathogens, aquatics professionals are all about protection. But as the industry enters uncharted international waters, a new group is looking for protection: manufacturers. Increasingly, they?re getting it through the tried and true patent.
Based on interviews and data, it seems that firms have filed for a virtual wave of patents over the past several years. Just ask the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In 2005, it received a record 406,302 patent applications double the number from 10 years ago.
Some say that growth reflects manufacturers? fear of product and intellectual property rights being stolen abroad and in the United States. Others say it?s now easier and less expensive to obtain a patent than ever before. In the past, an inventor or company needed to spend a large sum of money to hire a patent attorney, fill out the paperwork and then wait for approval, said Mark Blank of Adolph Kiefer & Associates in Zion, Ill.
Today, it?s as simple as filling out a form online and more necessary than ever, according to many manufacturers.
?It?s harder and harder to come up with something different, so you do want to protect it,? explained Dianne Rothhammer, president/owner of Aquatics by Sprint in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
That?s especially true given the rapidly expanding global market. Companies are trying to stop nations such as China, notorious for intellectual property theft, from copying their products, experts say. While an American patent does not apply outside the country, the same idea cannot be patented anywhere else in the world. Only the inventor can apply for a patent in other nations.
?Everything is being manufactured internationally, there?s money to be made and someone?s going to make a knockoff six months after you?ve made it,? said Alison Osinski, president of Aquatic Consulting Services in San Diego.
Patent attorney Richard Seltzer agreed. ?People who are inventors ? are becoming more aggressive in protecting their ideas,? said the senior partner at Kaye Scholer, LLP, in New York. He noted that products and information can travel around the world at incredible speeds, raising the risk of ideas being copied.
The good news is that patents can be filed simultaneously in the United States and other countries, Seltzer said. But even those steps don?t completely protect manufacturers.
No wonder skeptics still abound. ?There are too many ways around patents,? said Scott Cook, president of Family Fun Corp. in Louisville, Ohio. ?If you get into different countries, do you really think they?re going to honor our patent? Realistically, what am I going to do? Get an attorney here and an attorney there? It works for big corporations, maybe, but not small ones like us.?
Still, most patents work. Less than 25 percent of the infringements were willfully done, Seltzer noted. And punishments are high. ?Enhanced damages are almost always awarded in these cases,? he said.
But protection isn?t the only reason to get a patent, said Adolph Kiefer, president of Adolph Kiefer & Associates, who holds about 20 design patents of his own. ?It shows that you?ve accomplished a goal toward greater safety or saving lives, and that?s mostly why I?ve done it,? he said. ?It gives you an inspiration to do more. It?s the challenge of creating new products.?