My First Half Century in IP

Roy Prentice, a UK and European Patent Attorney and Trade Mark Attorney, who ran his own firm, Prentice & Matthews for many years before merging with Brookes Batchellor and who has recently celebrated 50 years in the profession, reflects on his first half century in Intellectual Property.

First day travelling to work
I caught the train from Tonbridge station. In those days, there were only three trains in the rush hour and we usually had to stand for the thirty mile trip to London which took nearly an hour. The rolling stock was the mainline corridor stock with separate compartments and a vestibule at each end of each carriage. That morning, I shared a vestibule with an old boy who took out the middle pages of his newspaper, spread them on the floor, and then sat on them. He told me that this was his last week at work and, at the end of the week, he would have worked for fifty years and would be retiring. I thought that it would be nice if I could do the same and, today, I have achieved that ambition and between us we have travelled up to London from Tonbridge for one hundred years!

First day at the office
I arrived at the offices of D. Young & Co. at. 9.00 am and introduced myself. Nobody was ready for me. I was told that I would be trained by Mr. George Myrants but that he did not usually arrive until after 10.00 am because he first took his children to school. (It was August and the schools had closed for the Summer holiday but, wisely, I did not mention this.) I was shown into a room with an empty desk, a chair, an empty book case and a filing cabinet which also proved to be empty. I was given a book “Patents for Inventions” by Blanco-White and told to read it until Mr. Myrants arrived. He duly arrived at the office at 10.00 am and I was introduced to him. He explained the rudiments of patent law and how to draft a claim. He showed me, as an example, a square ashtray and told me that the ashtray did not have to be square but could be round but that the novel feature was the provision of grooves in the rim which enabled a lit cigarette to rest in the groove without rolling out of the ash tray. That was the invention – now claim it! I learnt a lot from George Myrants and a lot of what he told me is still valid for drafting today.

Early days – patent searching
As a technical assistant, as trainee patent agents were called in those days, at first most of my time was spent searching. The Patent Office library was at 25 Southampton Buildings and D. Young & Co.’s offices at Staple Inn were next door. The library opened at 10.00 am. When I came in each morning, I would sort out the searches that needed to be done and then go over to the library at opening time. Now remember this was in the days before computers. Everything had to be searched manually and quite often the searches would take all morning. I would go back to the office at lunchtime and then had to report the searches in the afternoon. I remained responsible for most searches until another new boy started a couple of years later, when I was put in charge of the “search department”, as well as assuming responsibility for filing and prosecuting all of the registered design applications for the firm. Nowadays, with computers, what used to take over an hour can be done on the Internet in a few minutes and often in a few seconds.

Office procedures – typing
Typing was another change. We usually needed five copies of a specification. Two for filing at the Patent Office, two for the client – most of our clients were foreign associates who needed to send a copy of the spec to the applicant – and a file copy. The firm had a photocopier but photocopies were done on special paper and you could only copy one sheet at a time and make only one copy at a time. Typing five copies of a spec meant that the top copy was done on paper of 70 or 80 gsm quality (although we did not call it that) with four copies on flimsy paper (40 gsm) using carbon paper. Typing had to be very accurate. Correcting mistakes on five copies was a nightmare. If more than five copies were needed, such as for a batch of foreign patent applications, the spec was typed on onion skin paper. This was then wrapped around an inking roller which was hand cranked and the ink transferred to paper copies one at a time. The copies were wet and had to be laid out flat to dry. A team was needed. One person cranked the roller while others collected the copies and laid them out. We had a long room with a shelf on which the copies were laid. After a few years, the firm rented a Xerox machine. While this was quite primitive by today’s standards, it did make photocopying easier. There was a minimum rental and at the end of the first quarter, the firm had not taken the minimum number paid for by the rental. We had a technical force of eight and a dozen or so clerical staff! We simply had not realised the potential of the Xerox machine. Typing was still done using carbon paper and the photocopier was mainly used only for drawings!

Memorable Inventions
Fridges which defrost themselves. Back in the days when Concorde was being developed – a problem was encountered – the wings kept icing up. Teddington Aircraft Controls were asked to solve the problem and they came up with a solution which involved the use of sensors which detected the build-up of ice and which then activated heaters to melt the ice. I drafted the patent specification for the invention. Now, Teddington Aircraft Controls was a subsidiary of the British Thermostat Company Limited. They realised that sales of the sensors and heaters for Concorde would be minimal and they looked for other ways of using the invention. They came up with refrigerators! More patents followed. The spin-off from Concorde was colossal and helped to make Britain so prosperous in the sixties.

Unusual methods of patent enforcement
One of my clients was involved in the design and manufacture of diving suits and equipment.
He devised a lifejacket for use by divers for which we got a patent. He then devised a modification without telling me and started selling the modification. One day, I got a frantic phone call from my client. Two heavies had arrived at his premises and told him that he was infringing a patent and that unless he stopped immediately they would “sort him out”. My client wanted to know what he should do. I told him that the usual method was for the patentee to inform an alleged infringer of the existence of the patent and give him time to consider his position and reply. My client said that he did not think that this would work in this case and that he was going to tell the heavies that he would stop immediately. However, he would like to know if I thought he infringed the patent. He was also going to look into the matter of police protection. I got hold of the patent specification and checked that the patent was in force and then advised my client that I did not think that there was any infringement.

This happened while my secretary was on holiday and I had a temp. She took a keen interest in this case, which was unusual for a temp, and I asked her why. She said that she was a foster mother to the patentee’s child and that the patentee was currently serving a sentence for GBH in Lewes Prison. It seemed that, in spite of being in prison, he was still able to pay renewal fees and enforce his patent! Of course, I had to dismiss the temp immediately in case she passed on confidential information to the patentee. My client took the better part of valour and in spite of the fact that he did not infringe, he stopped selling the offending product. Thus, the patentee’s methods were very effective but, of course, illegal. I do not suppose that bothers a violent criminal.

Roy Prentice is currently a consultant with Brookes Batchellor. This article is based on an impromptu talk given to members of Brookes Batchellor’s Clerkenwell office by Roy on 8th August 2011, his 50th anniversary. Roy will add reflections on changes to the examination system in a future instalment.

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