A fresh wave of robotic vacuum cleaners could soon be released onto the market as some key technologies which gained patent protection about 20 years ago will become freely available for the first time.

In the fast-paced world of consumer appliance innovation, registered design rights and patents are often used to protect unique features, both in terms of their appearance and functionality. Granted patents give their owner exclusive use of the protected technology for a period of 20 years. During this time, rival manufacturers and importers cannot use the technology in their own products except under a licence agreement.

When key patents expire, however, the technologies they protect become freely available to the entire marketplace. There is a significant opportunity for agile manufacturers to build on these technologies and gain market share by launching their own innovative products.

Where it all started for robotic vacuum cleaners

Electrolux secured two key European patents for its ‘Trilobite’ robotic vacuum cleaner back in the 1990s – one protected the ultrasound obstacle detection system (EP 0 753 160) and the other the way its brush operates when it encounters obstacles (EP 0 841 868). These patents expired in 2015 and April 2017 and other manufacturers can now use them in the development of their own products.

What happens when key patents expire?

It is not unusual for manufacturers to prepare to launch competitor products in a bid to secure market share as soon as key patents expire.  They develop products that contain many of the same features as the market leader and they are sometimes cheaper too.

Manufacturers need to take care when adopting this approach, however. Whilst they can develop prototypes that make use of soon-to-expire patented technologies, they should not put them into production or establish supply chains until the relevant patents have expired. Doing so could be grounds for the patent owner to bring an infringement action against them.

When a key patent protecting Dyson’s bagless vacuum cleaner expired in June 2001, Hoover was gearing up to launch its own range of competitor products using the same technology. However, Dyson successfully foiled Hoover’s plan; blocking the sale of the new products on the grounds that the extent of their development prior to the patent expiring represented an infringement.

Looking further ahead

By mapping innovation activity and monitoring patent and registered design right applications closely, in particular those filed by their competitors, forward-thinking manufacturers can be ready to capitalise on new market opportunities as and when they arise.

In this and other fields of domestic appliances, further patents related to the use of interactive technology in the home are expected to expire in the late 2020s. This could generate another wave of development opportunities for smart-footed manufacturers.

David Paton is a patent and design attorney at intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers, who specialises in advising innovators of consumer appliances.