Fix in your mind an image -- of an offshore drilling rig. One that looks like a big boat. You see the derrick. It sits atop and in the middle of the boat. And then you notice something odd. The derrick has two tops, from each of which a string of metal depends. What gives?
Steady there. You've just spotted the tell-tale signs of an invention that one of the world's largest offshore drillers, Transocean (yes, that Transocean), got patents on three times over. The "dual drawworks" design allows drillers to do two things at once -- such as drill two wells or lower a blow-out preventer while lifting drill pipe out of the borehole. Which sure sounds like a good idea, especially for rigs that prospect in very deep water.
But another drilling firm, Maersk, deemed the invention "obvious", which the Court in KSR Int'l Co. v. Teleflex, Inc., 550 U.S. 398 (2007), confirmed will make a patent invalid. And Maersk seemed to have a point. If all the world uses a single drawworks, what could appear more blazingly obvious -- patent, even! -- than simply adding a second?
Except that sort of thinking gets you only so far. As the Federal Circuit pointed out, as it reviewed a judgment against Transocean on the obviousness issue, the fact that you could combine distinct ideas that others had imagined before you doesn't make the combination obvious. Looking at "objective factors" that tend to suggest or negate obviousness can make the difference. And it did in this case.
The Transocean design produced "commercial success" (oil and gas people wanted its dual-drawworks rigs), won "industry praise" (the same people said nice things about those rigs), generated "unexpected results" (the rigs worked better than people thought they would), prompted "copying" (by envious competitors), parodoxically earned "industry skepticism" (that the rigs would not work well), resulted in "licensing" (by more candid competitors), and met a "long-felt but unsolved need" (for the doing two jobs at once thing). Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling, Inc. v. Maersk Drilling USA, Inc., No. 11-1555 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 15, 2012).
Bonus: Check out the cool video.