In the movie "Flash of Genius," which covered the long 1960-70's law suit involving intermittent automobile windshield wipers, it seemed that the individual parts (wipers, control box, electrical components) were already available, but what was done with the wipers was not done previously. In the rulings for the claimant engineer (he was finally awarded something like $18m from Ford and $30m from Chrysler), what met the requirement for being:

  1. Beyond prior art?
  2. More than an obvious extension of knowledge possessed by the ordinary person skilled in that discipline?
  3. More than an extension of known engineering techniques?
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    It’s best to make your question a single question or perhaps a small number of closely related questions. This long a question doesn’t fit the nature of the site well.
    – Eric S
    May 22, 2020 at 2:03
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    I will add that what seems obvious now might not have been so 60 years ago.
    – Eric S
    May 22, 2020 at 2:04
  • Done, question shortened. Yes, that was a while ago. Sounds like you're saying that IP laws have changed. Regarding the court's ruling after trial by jury, the judge's interpretation is the judge's interpretation.
    – user24121
    May 22, 2020 at 3:25
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    Does the patent office have records of the patent files going back that far? The Examiners might have noted what met the requirements for novelty. Or, it may be possible to make a best-guess from the cited prior art. A search for inventor:(Robert W Kearns) in the Google Patents database shows 28 patents. The infringement judgments may also have the judges' opinions about obviousness. May 22, 2020 at 9:25

1 Answer 1


Almost everything is made of a combination of known things and, as @EricShain said in a comment what is obvious now might not have been obvious then. More importantly that the number of years that has past is the fact that we know about intermittent wipers. Humans have a tremendous hindsight bias. Once you know something, it seems obvious. It is very hard to put your mind into a state before you knew something.

That is why, until a few years ago, we had the TSM rule for judging obviousness. Teaching Suggestion Motivation. To find something as obvious the examiner needed to cite a teaching, suggestion, or motivation to modify or combine the prior art teachings to achieve the claimed invention.


The Bilski v. Kappos (2010) case said that TSM is an ok guideline but no longer required to make a good case of obviousness. It makes obviousness arguments harder. The examiner, however, is still not allowed to say "seems obvious to me". They must find a set of previous work that collectively have all of the elements of the rejected claim and make a reasonable argument that someone would be motivated to combine each of then to get to the claim as a whole. It is the arguments that someone would quickly jump to combining them that got easier for the examiner due to Bilski.

  • Thanks - I like these comments especially the TSM ruling. My understanding is that if an examiner(s) cannot find one or more related documents with the combination then it's not obvious. However, I have a concern that a lot of examiners - for software - could assume someone is eventually going to do that(?)
    – user24121
    May 24, 2020 at 19:02
  • see edited answer
    – George White
    May 24, 2020 at 21:25
  • Thanks - this is good, because if an examiner cannot find one or more related documents that combine all the components and provided motivation for combining, then it's harder to claim obviousness. I think if you also have a lot of enablement showing that combining is not easy, then it's a better case.
    – user24121
    May 24, 2020 at 21:43
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    Some things are patented becasue of the fundamental idea behind it with relatively easy and numerous implementations. Others are ideas that may have been around for a while without a feasible implementation. How skilled ford engineers were is irrelevant. In patent we have the POSITA - person of ordinary skil in the art.
    – George White
    May 24, 2020 at 22:28
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    I didn't see the movie so I do not get your point. The patent process factors in hypothetical people of ordinary skill in the art.
    – George White
    May 25, 2020 at 22:07

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