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2010 Was Banner Year For Patents In Alabama

618 patents were issued to Alabama inventors in 2010 through just the end of November, breaking the annual record for patents issued in the state with a month to go.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- It may have been a bad year for the Alabama economy, but 2010 was a banner year for Alabama's creativity.

A total of 618 patents were issued to Alabama inventors in 2010 through just the end of November, breaking the annual record for patents issued in the state with a full month to go. The previous best year in 25 years of records examined by The Birmingham News was 2002, when 595 patents were issued to Alabama inventors.

As in most years, the bulk of the 2010 patents were the product of research done at the state's biggest universities and at high-tech companies. But in addition to advances in medicine and engineering there were patents issued for new toys, lawn ornaments, and gear for fishing, hunting, football and golf.

Scot Gentle said he got the idea for his tail-wagging deer decoy when he and his brother were in the woods in 2002. They watched a doe shake her tail, and watched a buck in pursuit.

"My brother said to me, 'I want you to make for me a deer decoy with tail action.' And I said, 'I can do that!'" Gentle said.

Eight years after the idea was hatched the former Baptist preacher and forklift salesman holds U.S. patent No. D624,145, issued in September. He and his brother are now selling Tailtrick brand molded foam deer decoys online and at outdoors stores in metro Birmingham, and have had discussions with outdoors retail giant Cabela's about carrying the decoys, whose tails are put in motion by a small, battery-powered motor. They retail for $59.95 and $79.95, with a headless "grazing deer" model selling for less than one with an erect head.

Billy Dozier, a professor of horticulture at Auburn University, is an old hand at patents, having numerous advances in plant sciences to his credit. This year he was awarded patents for a new variety of kiwi called "AU Fitzgerald" and a new variety of chestnut tree called "AU Buck IV."

The kiwi doesn't have to be kept at as low a temperature as other varieties. The chestnut is more resistant to disease.

Dozier said Auburn imported chestnut trees from China in 1935 and has been tinkering with them ever since. The result has been a stack of patents on trees that better produce nuts for different kinds of wildlife β€” some are better for turkeys and some for deer.

"We've just continued to improve on them," he said.

As is the case with a lot of university research, Auburn's office of technology transfer helped license the new developments to private companies. The Wildlife Group in Tuskegee will grow and market the new chestnut trees, Dozier said.

Engineers and scientists at universities have a huge advantage over tinkerers when it comes to getting inventions patented and getting new ideas to the marketplace, said David Winwood, chief executive of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Research Foundation. It can cost many thousands of dollars to get a patent, because it requires research and detailed drawings, and the support of a university's technology transfer office can be invaluable.

Greg Peterson, head of the biotechnology practice at the Birmingham law firm Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, handles hundreds of patent applications simultaneously, filing about 70 new ones each year.

While he sees mostly applications for new drugs and medical advances β€” applications backed by universities and corporations β€” he also sees his share of gadgets for hunting and fishing. Inventions for outdoor sports are especially popular in the South, he said.

"I do a lot of hunting work just because that's popular around here," said Peterson, who handled Gentle's deer decoy application.

Among the most popular inventions that armchair engineers in Alabama try to patent, Peterson said, are fishing lures. There are at least two of them among the inventions patented by Alabamians this year, including one that dissolves after long-term exposure to water.

Applications for fishing lures are popular because they're the sort of thing that somebody can still invent in a garage or basement. But that's also why it's especially hard to successfully patent one. There's a lot of competition.

"Believe it or not, it's a hard area to get something patented in," Peterson said. "It's not just companies you're dealing with."

There are two kinds of patents, Peterson said. Patents that cover the way something looks, or "design" patents, typically cost less and are easier to get then patents that cover the way something works, or "utility" patents. To win either an inventor must demonstrate that his or her invention meets at least three criteria:

The invention must have "utility," meaning it has a real function.

It must have "novelty," meaning there must be at least one difference between it and the most similar already patented device.

It must meet the "obviousness" test. What sets it apart must not be something that would obviously occur to someone who works in the field and has ordinary skill.

Roughly half of patent applications are eventually approved, though the percentage approved is slowly declining over time.

Despite all of the red tape, it is still possible to win a patent without having the backing of a research university, a big corporation or even an attorney. But it's not easy.

"You can do it," Peterson said. "I can fix my own sink. The pipes might rattle. But you can do it."

Gentle, who patented the deer decoy, split the difference between going it alone and having big-time backing. He did most of the initial work himself, designing and building prototypes out of plywood, with the tail motion controlled using fishing line.

But even with his skill at design and construction, he said he's not sure he could have succeeded in winning the patent without professional help on the application.

And after winning the patent, turning invention into profit is a whole separate challenge.

"It hasn't been a very good year for us," Gentle said. "But the people who are buying them are using them and liking them."