Librarian uses patents to see into the future

Walt Johnson didn’t have any idea he would grow up to be a patent librarian.

“Biology is my major and I wanted to stick to science area that’s why I ended up with the science department [of the library],” Johnson said. “And patents just kind of came along.”

Johnson is a reserved, yet affable man — like just about any librarian. However, Johnson is a rare breed — one of only 85 patent and trademark depository librarians in the United States. Even more distinguishing is that since October 2004, Johnson has been this state’s only trained patent librarian and only the sixth since the Patent and Trademark Depository Library program’s adoption in Minnesota 25 years ago.

Each week, he shares his voluminous knowledge with dozens of walk-ins who are seeking knowledge on what it takes to get through the patent process.

The answer: quite a bit of fortitude and some fairly deep pockets.

Not only do you have to have a “completely original invention” to be granted a patent, but also have enough money to see the process — which can take up to two years — through to the end. Depending on the type of patent, filing fees vary from $50 at the low end to a few thousand dollars annually. Johnson said he recommends most get a lawyer.

“It’s not cheap,” he said, “that’s another thing that kind of discourages people.”

Nonetheless, Johnson’s job is to help people through the trying process. A limited number, however, have had real success.

A patented approach

When a potential inventor has a question about the patent process, Johnson descends from the stacks of patent-related material at Central Library to help inventors find what they are looking for on the 2nd floor or online.

Library patrons — some more secretive than others — come to Johnson to enlist him, and his resources, to check whether their idea is truly original.

“Independent inventors are always coming to me with ideas,” he said. “Everyone’s always looking for the next million dollar idea.”

Others are trying to track down their genealogy using patent records. As a patent and trademark depository librarian, Johnson can help you search back to 1920 using a computer database, or as far back as April 10, 1790 in hard copy.

 “People don’t realize how complicated a search can be,” he said.

To combat the convolution of the process, Johnson teaches twice-monthly classes at the library.

There are also a number of categories associated with patents of all stripes.

• Patents simply cover the invention

• Trademarks cover goods or services;

• Copyrights cover intellectual property such as text, photos or — perhaps unfortunately — the Verizon Wireless slogan “Can you hear me now?”

• Finally, “trade secrets,” such as the composition of WD-40, are protected somewhat, but aren’t officially patented, Johnson said.

The length of time one can hold a patent also varies. Design patents can be held for up to 14 years, while patents on utilities can last up to 20.

Invent America

Americans, in general, are more inventive — or at least hold more patents — than anywhere else in the world, Johnson said.

The number of inventions — and patents granted — continues to grow each year.

According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office — located in Arlington, Va. — 196,000 of the more than 400,000 submitted inventions were granted patents, up nearly 25 percent more than in 2005. What may be a bit baffling, though, is that nearly half of all United States patents originated outside of the U.S., but the patent holders applied for protection here.

The land of 10,000 lakes apparently has spawned a few original ideas of its own.

In 2006 — the most recent records available — Minnesotans were granted nearly 3,000 patents — placing the state’s patent holders ninth in the nation. Overall, more than 62,000 patents have been granted in the state, placing the state’s inventors respectably in 12th place. Of the thousands of inventions boasted by Minnesota inventors, the body-bending game of “Twister,” and the oscillating fair ride the “Tilt-A-Whirl” stand out, Johnson said.

‘A glimpse of where
we’re going’

The patent industry also seems to be in good shape, Johnson said, hiring thousands of highly trained and well educated patent agents annually. Additionally, patent designers help to bring inventors’ ideas to the third dimension and lawyers are always in demand.

“There’s no shortage of ideas,” Johnson said.

While he helps people bring their ideas to reality five days a week, Johnson hasn’t had the time to follow through on an invention of his own.

 “I’ve had a couple of ideas myself but I’ve never had the patience to pursue them,” he said.

In his class, Johnson provides some insight into intriguing patents — such as patenting a plant or mice species — and those that provide entertainment — such as the Pez dispenser, Koosh Ball or Slinky.

While he may be just a librarian, Walt Johnson’s job allows him to see the future.

“Some people say working with patents is like seeing the future because you’re seeing these new ideas long before they are in public use,” he said. “Sometimes working with patents … gives you a glimpse of where we’re going.”