The Guardian published an interesting article last week titled "Velcro, bullet trains and robotic arms: how nature is the mother of invention." The article discusses various examples of how humankind is trying to follow nature's examples of solutions to problems – my favorite being how ducklings swim behind the mother duck to benefit from the wake caused by the mother duck and hence save on the effort needed to keep up.
This article caused me to wonder how often patent offices look to and cite examples in nature as prior art against the claims of a patent application. For example, would a claim to a new AI architecture that is based on a biological architecture have that biological architecture cited against it as prior art? Would the patent office even look to nature in the first place? While I expect this is unlikely, the patent office could cite a corresponding textbook entry describing the example in nature against a patent application for related technology. However, unless the claim is very broad and the example in nature falls within the scope of the claim, the claim will still likely be novel and inventive over such a citation and thus allowable.
Even if the prior art (i.e. the example in nature) did disclose or anticipate a product claim (e.g. a sticky protein of a mussel, as described in the article), the method of creating the product will also likely be new and inventive and thus protectable. Therefore, suitable patent protection should be possible even when nature is providing inspiration for inventions.
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