Combination inventions are ideas that involve the combining of two or more existing inventions. Combination inventions often have unique patent rules and regulations that must be followed.

Rules for Combination Invention Patents

A lot of new inventions are actually just the pairing of two already existing inventions. Because patents already exist for the existing inventions, some wonder if it is possible to get a new patent for the combination invention. In previous years, combination invention patents were fairly easy to obtain. However, changes in the U.S. Supreme Court have made the process harder.

A typical patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office includes three different sets of rights:

  • Utility
  • Design
  • Plant Patents

1999 Standard for Combination Patents

The 1999 Standard ruling for patents prevented issuing patents for new inventions that were obvious to someone in the specific industry. Because obvious can be considered a vague term, the U.S. Patent Office designed a formula to determine whether something was obvious or not. A combination invention is considered obvious if the following feature applies:

  • There was previous teaching, suggestion, or motivation to make the combination invention. This was measured by the Teaching-Suggesting-Motivating test (TSM).

Many thought, however, that this test made it too easy to obtain a patent for almost any product. Fortunately, additional changes were made to the combination invention patenting process in 2007.

The Standard for Combination Patents After 2007

The standards for obtaining a combination invention patent changed after the case of KSR v. Teleflex in 2007. A company attempted to patent the combination of an adjustable gas pedal with an electronic sensor. The courts ruled that each of the individual patents were well-known and that this ordinary invention was not patentable. This ruling changed the requirement of the TSM test. The TSM test could no longer decide if something was obvious or patentable.

The New Standard: Ordinary Innovation Not Patentable

The biggest contribution of the KSR v. Teleflex case of 2007 was that it broadened the definition of what was considered to be obvious. This resulted in a more difficult process of obtaining a patent. Today, patents will generally not be approved if the invention uses the original functions of another patented item.

Ordinary inventions can no longer be patented even if there is no teaching, suggestion, or motivation present in the creation.

How Unusual Combinations Lead to Breakthrough Ideas

Many great ideas come from the pairing of unusual combinations. By mixing services and even ingredients, businesses can make entirely new products that cater to a new market. History is full of great ideas that are really just the combination of two or more single ideas:

  • Johannes Gutenberg's printing press: Gutenberg combined two individual ideas to create a printing press that rapidly increased the speed of book printing.
  • The creation of bronze: Bronze is just a combination of iron and tin.
  • The clockwork radio: Trevor Bayliss created the clockwork radio which led to clock availability in parts of the world that could not afford batteries.
  • Modern day marketing: Businesses are always looking for ways to establish brand identity and uniqueness in the marketplace by combining already existing services.
  • Food and drink: Many foods have been created by combining multiple ingredients. Everyone remembers the single jar of peanut butter and jelly.
  • Kitchenware: The Kug is designed to combine the kettle and the mug.

Can Someone Patent the Combination of Two Existing Technologies as a New Invention?

The ability to patent two existing ideas really depends on what those two ideas are. If the combination is something obvious, it can generally not be patented. However, if the invention involves an extra inventive step and the final outcome is not something that is obvious, then the product may be patentable. Additionally, if the invention outcome is unpredictable or solves a need, it may also be patentable.

Finally, combining items in a novel way with large commercial success can also make it eligible for a patent. It also depends if the individual items already have a patent on them and what is included in the patent.

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