Obvious ideas cannot be patented. Lessons from John Deere tractors

Back in 1966 the US Supreme Court reviewed a case where John Deere tractors held a patent on a shock absorber for their plows to avoid damage to the machine when plowing rocky soil.  At the time many felt this was not a “new” invention and rather just a routine or odviouss combination of existing and known components.     The patent was challenged as being odviouss and therefore not patentable.  

The most important thing we can learn from this case was the rules around what is and what is not odviouss when it comes to patenting a new invention.   These rules or guidelines are called the “Graham Factors” and can be summarized as follows: 

The Graham factors

(1) Defining the scope and content of prior art is crucial for understanding an inventor’s creation. The patent claims must be given the broadest reasonable interpretation, aligning with the overall concept of the invention.

(2) Identifying distinctions between the claimed invention and prior art involves interpreting claim language and considering both elements as a cohesive whole.

(3) Determining the level of ordinary skill in the relevant art involves establishing a hypothetical person with knowledge at the time of the invention. Factors like problem types, prior art solutions, technology sophistication, innovation speed, and educational levels are considered.

(4) Secondary considerations, also known as ‘secondary indicia of non-obviousness,’ act as a reality check. These include evidence of commercial success, long-felt unmet needs, failure of others, industry copying, and unexpected results. A strong secondary consideration is a long-felt but unresolved need in the industry. Commercial success is also valid if it can be directly attributed to the innovation.

Unfortunately not all secondary considerations are equal, and evidence may be submitted during the patent prosecution process but not used by the examiner. While the absence of past existence doesn’t automatically imply non-obviousness, a long-felt, well-documented need without a solution adds substantial weight to the argument for non-obviousness.

The good news for inventors is that the initial burden of proven what is odviouss falls to the patent office.  After we file a patent application we often expect to get some push back from the patent examiner in the form of an obviousness rejection.  We can then look to the 4 Graham factors listed above to see if we agree or disagree with the examiner (spoiler alert – we usually disagree and have to fight to get each patent approved).  


We would welcome the opportunity to write and file your patent and help prove your idea is not odviouss before the patent examiner.   Click here for a free, no obligation price quote.