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Primer Futon Patents

     In-Depth Primer ~ Futon Frame Patents

Futon Mechanisms (Patents)

Following is some information on three patented futon design ideas being used in the industry today. As stated above, most futon frame manufacturers and importers use some variation of the slider mechanism in their futon frame construction. Others have attempted to break new ground.

Otis Bed Manufacturing has recently applied for a patent for what is called the Stuart Mechanism. This mechanism utilizes an electric motor and gear box to automatically convert futon from bed to sofa and back again.

Spectrum's Jack Knife Mechanism allows the seat to remain interlocked and balanced as the futon frame converts from bed to sofa and back again.

August Lotz’ Barton Mechanism utilizes a simple notch and pawl to engage the seat and back when converting. The pawl, a free hanging lever, engages with a notched step allowing easy conversion from bed to sofa.
Futon Life requested patent information from over twenty futon companies. Only the three listed above responded, and we thank them for their contribution. Other companies responded with mechanism information but only the patents are featured here. We also thank these companies for their candor as well.- Editor
 

Patents - Are they really worth it?

I think we all understand the basic principles of the patent system. The Government contracts with individuals, through the patent office, to make original ideas the personal property of their inventors. The theory is that the original thinking of the inventor is encouraged by a system that turns the idea into property that can be sold or licensed without being stolen (copied).
In order to receive patent protection inventors have to submit their ideas to the patent office along with a description of how that particular idea is different than all the other ideas that have come before it. The theory is that the patented idea is new not like an idea that has already been patented, or an idea that has been previously used somewhere in the industry. So, does that mean that the new idea is also useful? Well, if you ask the inventors (like myself) the new idea is so fresh and clever that it will revolutionize it’s intended industry. But the reality is that the patented idea is just original, not necessarily more useful than other ideas that came before it.

So the patented device, in this case a futon conversion mechanism, is well regarded by the inventor or the company that has licensed production, but, of what value to the whole- sale and eventually the retail consumers?

The wholesaler, or the people that have licensed the device, are saying that here is a special and valuable product the benefits of which can only be had when you buy from them. As a retailer, or wholesale customer, you should understand the potential drawbacks as well as the touted benefits.

Not every new idea is a good idea. New ideas on the market may have unexpected or not predicted drawbacks that can show up after the product has been purchased and is being used in the customer’s house. A conversion mechanism may work well when all it’s parts are new and fresh and become cranky and difficult as parts wear. Oddly enough, the less new ground a product covers and the more conventional it’s hardware or component parts the less likely it is to fail during it’s warranty period.

Is the operation of the new product user friendly? The original customer got the operating instructions from the retailer when they bought the product. But, everyone that sleeps on that bed and tries to convert it the next morning may not have seen the operating manual. Ask yourself, is the operation of this conversion mechanism fairly obvious. Could someone change it from a bed back into a couch without a factory rep standing by? I confess to designing a product once that, when not carefully operated, would break. It was not the customer’s fault. We were all embarrassed and spent the next five years periodically replacing broken parts caused by this design error. A good rule might be to explore new manufacturing concepts with manufacturers that you trust to stand behind their products.

Another thing to consider is how appropriate the mechanism is to the rest of the product. I have seen glider mechanisms on simple futon frames that simply went back into a couch when the back was raised. To the customer that only intends to use the product occasionally this may be best. The frame is light, doesn’t really need to be a wall hugger, and since it will be a couch most of the time, it wont matter that futon frame can’t be operated from the front or has to be pulled out away from the wall.

Products that feature heavy futon frames with lots of wooden parts may will benefit from being either front operating or wall huggers. A futon frame that will be a couch during the day and a bed at night will benefit from a robust mechanism that makes conversation easy.

Part of the trick to selling new concepts and ideas in the retail store is to not unsell other ideas being marketed elsewhere in the same store. Retail sales people should keep their approach positive, selling new concepts on one piece of furniture without unselling every other piece that doesn’t have that concept.

I would say, be open to new ideas and concepts and respect the originality of the supplier who is offering a patented product. But, stick with suppliers that stand behind their products and service their customer’s complaints. The supplier, or manufacturer should be a partner to the retailer not an adversary.

 

Getting a Patent

How do you get a patent? How do you come up with these ideas? These are two of the most frequent questions people ask me.
You see, I’m an inventor/designer by training and profession, and although I can’t or won’t answer the second question I will attempt to address the first: how do you get a patent?
Well first, you come up with one of these ideas (see question two). Then you build something rather crude to prove (to yourself mostly) that the idea works. This is called “proof of concept” or POC. That the idea works is crucial to a utility patent, as it is called. Other intellectual property, such as trademarks, copyrights, even design patents don’t have to work, they just have to “be”. But a utility patent usually claims a mechanism or a process. Something that changes or moves from one state to another. Such as a futon frame: sofa to bed to sofa, etcetera. How it does it, is the subject matter of the utility patent and described in the claims of the patent.
So you’ve built this thing and it does work. At this point you definitely should exclaim “Eureka!” Some abstract or rationalistically inclined inventors would argue that “Eureka” is declared when you first get the great idea.
Anyhow, now you have to figure out “what good is it?” Because to merit a patent a device must not only be new and different (“not obvious to one skilled in the trade” as the feds put it) but it also has to be useful. Hmmm...That could be more difficult. Most inventions, even patents, (Let’s face it: it is big business.) tend to solve problems that don’t exist, but they do solve them. Whether an invention is useful is eventually answered by the market, and to muster up all the marketing savvy you have or don’t have, and then do some serious soul searching. This is hard because if you’re like me or like all other inventors, you think your invention is the greatest thing since sliced bread and everybody needs one. It’s your brain child and like any parent you think your baby is the cutest, and most talented ever. (Oops, sorry! I may have just stepped on about 4 billion sets of toes.)
Patents don’t come cheap, eight grand at least (big business, remember). So the only reason you decide to get one in the first place, is because it will make money for you. And the only way it will make money is if it will claim a market for you (forget “create a market”, unless your name is Gates). At the very least it must fill a “market gap” or be so much better and/or cheaper than all your competitors’ products. Also, don’t overlook what I call the phenomenon of “market inertia”. (More on this in another article, perhaps).
Anyhow, you’ve got the prototype and you’re pretty sure it’ll sell like hot cakes. Next step is to dig deeeeep into your pockets. If your pockets aren’t deep enough, you’ll have to dig in someone else’s, dig? Because the patent attorney will listen to the disclosure of your invention very carefully. He or she will not laugh in your face or suddenly look a little sick. He or she will scribble something in code, and will request that you leave a retainer. Before parting with your money, be very sure that you are trusting your soul to the best. Because anything worth patenting is worth patenting well. Otherwise your competitors will do-se-do around your patent and you’ll be the proud owner of an $8,000.00 framed piece of paper, decorating the wall in your office.
Your patent attorney then does his/her thing and eventually submits your patent application to the government for approval. And you wait. And wait. It is now almost two years later and you’re almost $8k poorer and finally you get your answer back from the patent office. Rejected. Yup, rejected. Unbelievable! Undaunted, you and your $300.00 per hour attorney, redraft and restate and resubmit your application. “Final rejection” comes back the verdict. What gives?
This is exactly what happened to the Freedom FrameÑa hot new futon frame on the market. You know the product is good, and its already been “selling like hot cakes” (to quote one retailer) for a year. Some retailers have already named it “smart frame”. So what gives with the patent?
At this point my attorney and I stuffed two Freedom Frames and one futon into my Explorer and drove down to Washington, DC. Grunting and puffing, we manhandled the frames and futon through many doors, corridors, elevators, and finally plunked it all down right in the office of the patent examiner. We made the examiner sit in the frame. We showed him how it worked.
The examiner was impressed. He admitted that he hadn’t really understood it before. This was really neat. His expression changed. He started suggesting what to claim in the patent. The Freedom Futon Frame patent ended up with even broader coverage than we had originally applied for. Based on the four bar linkage system (its own field in mechanical engineering), it created a futon frame that is ridiculously simple to operate. Simple because its so sophisticated. With a minimum of parts it creates a frame that is good looking, “very clean design” (retailer), very sturdy and yet every part is easily replaceable. But most important of all, it can be made and sold for a minimum price point. And that’s worth patenting.
 

 

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