Fidget devices are everywhere. My own kids have somehow acquired at least two variants including the fidget cube and the fidget spinner. Recently the explosion in popularity of these toys has been accompanied by a series of news articles (The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The New York Times) focusing on the inventor of the spinner, Catherine A. Hettinger, a small time inventor who, as the story goes, missed out on a huge payday because she couldn’t afford the renewal fee on her patent for the spinner toy.
This story seems to have caught the imagination of the public (or at least the press) with its story of the lone inventor who was cut off from the success that followed.
Only, it seems to IPcopy that this story is misleading, “fake news” to use the terminology of the moment, since the patent arguably doesn’t cover the fidget spinner device and would not have lasted this long under any circumstances….
Catherine Hettinger is the inventor named on three patents, one of which (US5591062) relates to a spinning toy. As reported in the media Hettinger was forced to allow the patent to lapse in 2005 because she could not afford the renewal fee.
Scope of protection of the patent
The scope of protection that is afforded by a patent to its owner is defined by the claims of the patent. In the present patent the main claim of the patent describes a finger spinner comprising “a thin, round, single thickness, primary sheet of plastic material molded to form a unitized central finger placement area means and a skirt balance means, said central finger placement area means being a thin walled essentially spherical dome…”
On the face of it the Hettinger patent appears to be describing a sort of UFO like shape (see image) which doesn’t appear to read on particularly well to the device shown at the top of the page. Now, IPcopy should point out that we’ve not in any way conducted a detailed analysis of this patent but we’d query whether the claims of the patent actually cover the toys we’ve seen that are on the market.
The Ever-lasting patent
Within the patent system it is necessary to pay a variety of different fees at different points in the life-cycle of the patent. One of these fees is the renewal (or maintenance) fee which keeps the patent in force. In most systems this fee is due after the patent grants (though in Europe maintenance fees become due before grant of the patent occurs) and additionally has to be paid at regular intervals (in most systems the renewal fee is an annual fee though in the US the renewal fee is due at three different points – 3 ½, 7 ½ and 11 ½ years from grant of the patent).
A common element of this story is the implication that if Hettinger had been able to afford the approx $400 renewal fee in 2005 then she would have been able to benefit from the current fad for fidget devices by presumably either selling or licensing her patent.
However, patents do not last forever. The maximum term of a patent is usually 20 years from filing, though in the case of the Hettinger patent the term of the patent was actually assessed under a previous version of US patent law in which the term of the patent was 17 years from grant of the patent.
Looking at the Hettinger patent it is noted that it granted on 7 January 1997. Therefore even if all the renewal fees had been paid the patent would have expired in January 2014 at the latest.
Given the craze for fidget devices has only taken off in the last few months there appears to be no overlap between the theoretical end of her patent’s lifespan and the “age of the fidget devices”. So on the face of it she would have had no claim for any royalties anyway.
So, given all the above, why is Hettinger credited with being the inventor of the finger spinner? On this point matters are uncertain. The Wikipedia page for Fidget Spinners acknowledges the claim that Hettinger is the inventor is disputed and some news articles seem to suggest that she acknowledges as much herself.
Whatever the origins of the finger spinner however Hettinger has now launched a Kickstarter to try and get her original design off the ground. As of writing the Kickstarter is at nearly 50% of its target funding amount with just under a month to go.
Mark Richardson 22 May 2017