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Protecting the protectors with military patents

October 1st, 2013 / By: / Advanced Textiles

Essential information on patents for military uniforms.

Recent innovations in the fabric world increasingly protect our men and women in uniform. Many of these innovations are patented by fabric manufacturers, because the public is generally aware that it is possible to patent a new Kevlar®, photovoltaic material or other innovative fabric. But many innovators crafting new products using fabrics may not realize that they are leaving themselves unprotected. Innovators who use fabric purchased from a manufacturer may also be eligible to receive utility patent protection for new products or methods they create using the existing materials. This patent protection can be crucial to protecting a product line, getting a jump-start on the market or licensing an innovative product or method.

A utility patent may be awarded for a useful device or method of using or making a device that is new and is not rendered obvious by technology available to the public. This article focuses on utility patents as compared to design patents, which can be obtained for the ornamental design for an object having a practical utility. Upon obtaining utility patent protection for a device or method, a patent holder may prevent others from making, using, or selling the patented device or method for 20 years from the patent’s filing date. This temporary monopoly provides incentives to innovators and a quid pro quo for disclosing their innovations to the public.

While the public benefits from the disclosure of improved technology, patents can be a valuable asset for companies as well. After making a significant investment to develop a particular product (or method of manufacturing a product), it becomes advantageous to protect that investment by preventing another company from stealing it. Companies use various strategies in building a patent portfolio—some apply for many patents to comprehensively protect a key product line and aggressively prevent competitors from entering the market; others pursue “defensive” patents to help fend off a claim of patent infringement by a competitor. Many companies are also able to obtain significant revenue by licensing their patented designs. Regardless of how patents fit into a company’s business model, it is critical to understand what qualifies as patent-eligible subject matter in a particular field. 

For innovative devices or methods incorporating known fabrics in military uniforms, here are three examples that may surprise you.

Hidden assets

At first glance, some may consider the first example—camouflage—as art unworthy of patent protection. But the art of blending in with one’s environment is increasingly becoming a science, as evidenced by the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) uniform described in U.S. Patent No. 6,805,957. The previous USMC camouflage pattern was developed in the late ’70s and was outdated for a number of reasons, particularly that the fabric becomes dark when wet. Inhibiting the disruptive pattern of the design, a marine appeared as a black silhouette against a background. To address this issue and new threats faced by today’s military, the USMC took an integrated approach, focusing on the synergistic relationship between pattern, materials used, and printing and painting techniques “to obtain complete battlefield concealment in the visible and near infrared spectrum” (i.e., using night-vision goggles).

Using a fabric blend, the fabric is desized, scoured, vat dyed, and printed to match a specific pixel pattern. After printing, the fabric is treated with a resin and other chemicals tailored for nylon/cotton blend fabrics before being “extracted, dried, pressed and cured.” The pixel pattern uses four colorings to create a “macro pattern resulting from a repeat of a micro pattern,” which serves to match the spatial characteristics of the surrounding environment while disrupting the shape of the person wearing the uniform. The color combination produces a reflectance value comparable to the negative space of the surrounding environment. As new fabrics become available, new devices and methods incorporating those fabrics with camouflage patterns will help to protect our military in wet and dry conditions whether they are being viewed by a human, through night-vision goggles, or by a machine operating in the infrared spectrum.

Vested interests

The second example—an innovative medical vest—has specific application to military environments. Unlike civilian doctors who have ample space for storing medical supplies, medics treating seriously wounded patients on a battlefield have the challenging task of carrying potentially needed supplies without limiting the use of their hands. Military medics must also overcome the challenge of locating specific medical equipment when visibility is low and time is critical. Using known fabrics, the medical vest described in U.S. Patent No. 5,265,782 stores medical supplies, such as IV bags, field dressing, chest tubes, tape, a strobe light, a D-ring, a flashlight, an IV catheter and a holster. But this medical vest doesn’t merely hold supplies; the compartments are arranged in a way that enhances visibility, access and use of the stored supplies for a right- or left-handed person. Materials such as Velcro™ may be used to facilitate quick opening and closing of compartments. While this particular vest is sized to fit over a flak jacket, bulletproof vest, or other military garment, new fabrics may further improve its functionality or limit the need for undergarments. And as new medical equipment becomes available, alternative arrangements that better facilitate use of that equipment may inspire new products or methods. More durable, elastic, weather-resistant or otherwise improved fabrics may open the door to continued innovation in helping military personnel complete difficult tasks, including medical operations.

Head on

The third example—a helmet—has continued to evolve with innovative materials. To withstand the increasing firepower of modern ballistics, layers of various fibers have been used to reduce weight and increase strength in helmet designs. Using only known fabric materials, European Patent No. 2,111,128 B1 describes an innovative helmet shell and a method for producing a helmet shell that reduces the helmet’s weight and cost of production. Specifically, the helmet combines layers of known aramid fibers, polyolefin fibers, and glass fibers in a unique way. Known to have “good ballistic resistance,” the aramid fiber layers, for example Kevlar® woven fabric, form the central section of the helmet shell. Layers of high-tenacity polyolefin fibers, for example Spectra® fibers, form the inner section of the helmet shell. Optionally, layers of glass fibers, the cheapest and stiffest material of the three, may be used to form the outer section of the helmet shell.

To construct the shell, the high-tenacity polyolefin fibers are placed in a mold. Then resin is added, along with other layers placed at the proper orientation. Once properly loaded in the mold, the helmet shell can be molded to bond the layers together through application of heat and pressure. As the shell cools, molding pressure is maintained until it is removed from the mold. Different fabric types, weave patterns, resins, coatings, and layer thicknesses may be used to tailor the helmet shell to a specific application. As new fabrics are developed—particularly those with increased strength and decreased weight and cost—innovative protective military gear using those fabrics, such as helmets, bulletproof vests, and shields, may qualify for patent protection.

Whether a company is designing a feature printed on a military uniform, a device to facilitate a military task, protective gear using known fabrics, or other innovative military components, it is critical to identify and tailor a business model around what can be patented and how patents can help build the business or shield it from a competitor. Technological advances in fabrics and methods of manufacturing products incorporating fabrics will continue to keep patents a surprisingly important part of the specialty fabrics industry.

John A. Morrissett is an associate and Troy E. Grabow is a partner at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner LLP, one of the largest intellectual property law firms in the world. Both have a particular interest in obtaining and enforcing patent protection for devices and methods involving specialty fabrics.

The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for informational purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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