Q: I'm thinking of starting a glasses company. Are there patents for hinge designs if they are printed in 3D?
A: Thanks for caring enough about doing the right thing to ask a question. The technical term for what you are asking is called freedom to operate (FTO) or sometimes "clearance". You are asking whether there are concrete legal rights that exist that would impinge on your freedom to operate in the manner you wish to do. To do this correctly, one would need to carefully study both your proposed product and the claims of the relevant patents. I will not do that here, but will provide you with some general tools so you can prepare to talk with a patent attorney.
When looking for relevant patents, there may be a patent for the finished product that uses a particular type of hinge that lends itself to being printed. Or there may be a patent on a process for creating the hinge. You need to look at both sides of the coin.
Information about utility patents can be found at http://www.flynniplaw.com/services/legal-services/united-states-utility-patents.
You may want to do some searching for relevant patents using the tools taught here http://bit.ly/Patent_Searching. A good cross-check is to look for patent assets assigned to any company with a similar product. https://assignment.uspto.gov/patent/index.html#/patent/search
A general description of Freedom to Operate work is found http://www.flynniplaw.com/services/legal-services/143-freedom-to-operate.
If you find at least one patent or pending applications that is a potential problem then it is time for a patent attorney to sort out whether it is a near miss or a real problem. Find a patent attorney with the right skills rather than the one down the street as patent attorneys work with Federal law ans help clients from all over. Sometimes the patent has expired or has lapsed for failure to pay a maintenance fee to renew the patent rights. Sometimes you can modify your design a bit and be clear of the patent. See http://www.flynniplaw.com/services/legal-services/freedom-to-operate/design-around-guidance.
In some instances, one can take a license from the original patent holder but that adds another layer of costs and some entrepreneurs do not want to explore that option.
A FEW WARNINGS
1) There may be patent applications ahead of you in the pipeline that have not surfaced yet as published applications. So searching may not identify all potential problems. Searching will reduce your risk of a problem but not drive the risk to zero.
2) Each country has its own patents and trademarks. So being free to operate in the US does not necessarily mean you are free to operate in Canada or Australia. The US is such a big market that many companies located outside of the US do seek patents here so our list of patents is well-developed but there are patent rights other places that do not show up here.
NOTE -- in some countries there is a lesser form or utility patent called a utility model. This type is not available in the US and is easier to get. So an item that would not be able to get a normal utility patent in the US may have a utility model patent in another country. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utility_model
Kevin E Flynn
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