Considering Constraints When Evaluating Patentable Ideas

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Every invention has a set of constraints, and it is imperative to uncover and evaluate them when considering patenting. This applies to an inventor or business manager who is trying to ferret out ideas contained in a new product as well as the patent attorney who is writing claims for a patent.

Inventors are always trying to game the system. This is what makes them special. In order to game the system, they exploit various constraints to come up with creative solutions.

The process of innovation, in its most rudimentary form, is overcoming conflicting constraints or dilemmas. A classic example is the dilemma of designing a ship. Long, slender hulls are faster, but are less stable than shorter, wider hulls. The dilemma has two conflicting constraints: wider hulls are better for stability but worse for speed. In order to have both speed and stability, the dilemma can be solved by a catamaran, which has two hulls, both of which are long and slender but have much more stability than any single hulled vessel.

Many inventors can do this optimization process instantly. They think about a problem and can instantly visualize how it can be solved, the problems it will create, and the benefits it will have. Some talented inventors do this so quickly that the entire process is not a fully conscious, rigorous, and methodical thought process.

From a patenting perspective, it is important to slow down or recreate this process and pick apart the constraints actually used by the inventor. Often, this analysis will uncover constraints that were unimportant, or those that can be substituted to identify new inventions or broaden the current invention substantially.

One pattern emerges repeatedly:

The inventor has constraints that are unique to them but not to competitors. In this case, an invention only applies to the inventor, but would not apply to anyone else. These types of inventions, while innovative, can be commercially useless because nobody would infringe or license such an invention.

I have seen this pattern happen in large companies, where the inventor creates a solution that was driven by the need to be compatible with legacy systems. The invention was a very clever work around to a problem that was unique to that company only, and nobody else would possibly use the invention. That patent application was a waste of resources.

The constraints themselves are new areas for innovation. When doing the constraint analysis, each constraint can be analyzed to see if there is an invention in removing the constraint or designing a solution without the constraint. What caused the constraint? Will the constraint exist with changes in the market?

A constraint analysis can lead to new improvements and innovations on the current invention. What would the design look like if the constraint did not exist, or if the constraint were much larger?

Constraint analysis is merely one way to dissect and understand an invention. It is an important analysis to do to ensure that the invention has commercial usefulness.