Experimental Use of an Invention
Inventors must take care that their invention is “new” for it to be patentable. That means the invention hasn’t been disclosed to the public. Trade show announcements, press releases, publications, offering the invention for sale – all of these can be considered a public disclosure, and if disclosure of the invention occurs before the date of filing of the patent application, this disclosure could defeat patentability, since the invention is no longer “new” for patenting purposes.
In Canada and the U.S. there is a 12-month grace period, so the date of prior disclosure is measured against this 12-month period: put another way, patentability may be lost if the invention was disclosed by the inventor more than one year before the filing date of the patent.
So how does this apply to experimental use? How can an inventor test new inventions and avoid the problems associated with public disclosure?
The recent decision in Bombardier Recreational Products Inc. v. Arctic Cat Inc. is interesting in a number of ways, but in this discussion I want to flag one element of the case. Arctic Cat was sued by Bombardier for infringement of certain snowmobile patents, which related to a particular configuration of rider position and frame construction. Arctic Cat raised a number of defences and one of them was “prior public disclosure.” Since Bombardier, the patent-holder, tested its prototypes of the snowmobiles on public trails, Arctic Cat argued that, in and of itself, constituted public disclosure, since “someone could have witnessed the rider's hips above his knees, and the ankles behind the knees, and the hips behind the ankles.”
Unhappily for Arctic Cat, the court dryly dismissed this defence as “another one of those last-ditch efforts.”
Citing an inventor’s freedom to engage in “reasonable experimentation”, the court went on to say: “Since at least 1904, our law has recognized the need to experiment in order to bring the invention to perfection. …In this case, the evidence is that [Bombardier] was conscious of the need for confidentiality and took steps to ensure it would be protected. The experimentation was necessary in view of the many uses that would be available for that new configuration.”
The court noted that, even if a member of the public could have seen the prototype snowmobile “there is little information that is made available to the public while riding the snowmobile on a trail, even for the person skilled in the art. The necessary information to enable is not made available. The invention disclosed in the Patents is not understood, its parameters are not accessible and it would not be possible to reproduce the invention on the simple basis that a snowmobile has been seen on a trail.”
Applying the well-recognized experimental use exception, the court found that experimental use on a public trail did not constitute prior public disclosure of the inventions. Inventors should take care to handle experimental use very carefully. Make sure you get advice on this from experienced IP advisors.