A recent patent application from Tesla not only provided a sneak peek at a feature the electric carmaker may incorporate into future models, it served as a reminder that inventions that already exist may be patented if they are combined in a nonobvious manner.
Tesla’s patent application is for an “advanced sunroof lighting system.” Essentially, it is a traditional sunroof (a piece of glass) equipped with technology that can limit the amount of light that enters as well as generate its own light when natural light is not available. Andrew Krok, who writes about the auto industry for CNET, says, the industry already has both separate systems in cars, but this is the first sunroof that includes both of these innovations in a single piece of glass.
So-called combination inventions involve combining two or more existing inventions. Up until 2007, obtaining combination invention patents was fairly easy. Under the 1999 standard used by the U.S. Patent Office, a combination invention was considered nonobvious as long as there was no “prior teaching, suggestion, or motivation to make the combination.”
The Supreme Court toughened the standards for obtaining a combination patent in 2007. In the case of KSR v Teleflex, KSR, a Canadian company, manufactured a product combining an adjustable gas pedal with an electronic sensor – a combination for which Teleflex held a patent. The Supreme Court ruled that the teaching, suggestion, or motivation test had been applied too stringently and that obviousness of the Teleflex invention was apparent due to other considerations such as whether the combination would have been obvious to try for a person skilled in art.
The 2007 ruling makes obtaining a combination patent more difficult, but not impossible. For example, if combining two or more existing items in a novel way produces unexpected results, it just may be patentable.