March 24, 2014 | By Daniel Nazer

Help Save Solar Devices From Overbroad Patents

Most of the problems with the patent system stem from the flood of low quality patents granted by the Patent Office. Once a bad patent issues, it is expensive and challenging to fight. The much better solution is for overbroad patents not to issue in the first place. And one way to help that happen is to submit prior art (the pre-existing publications and technology that could invalidate a patent by showing that the invention wasn't new) while a patent application is still pending.

Last year, EFF partnered with the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School to challenge six 3D printing patent applications. Now the Cyberlaw Clinic is working on a new project, this time to challenge a very broad Apple patent application covering solar-powered electronics. Here’s what the clinic wrote today:

How cool would it be to charge your phone just by leaving it in a sunny spot by the window or for your e-reader to run on power from the sun? Based on this patent application by Apple, solar power may come to iPhones one day soon — but if Apple is able to patent the idea, it may not be available for other brands until 2032.

That would be a shame, not only because it could inhibit the development and distribution of greener devices, but also because there’s good reason to suspect that the technology Apple is claiming was actually invented earlier by open hardware developers and academics. For example, the One Laptop Per Child computer used one kind of solar power system discussed in the patent application. Unfortunately, as we have seen with 3D printing, this kind of prior art is not often known to the examiners at the Patent and Trademark Office, who decide whether to issue a patent.

That’s where you come in. The Cyberlaw Clinic is asking for your help to identify publications that disclose the technology being claimed by Apple. If you are familiar with electronic devices that accept power directly from a solar panel, and preferably which use a technique called “maximum power point tracking,” head to this webpage for more details on where to submit documentation or leads.

Too often patent examiners—who have very little time to review the more than 500,000 applications filed every year—fail to find the most relevant prior art before issuing a patent. If you know of any prior art for this application, please reach out to the Cyberlaw Clinic. Let’s make sure that the Patent Office sees all the relevant material before it hands out a broad patent on solar devices.


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