Patents in Cosmetics

patentThe force of nature that is British Beauty Blogger was onto me the other day asking for comments on a couple of patents she had come across. Patents are a great source of information for cosmetic scientists, and potentially for beauty bloggers as well though BBB is the only one I know who has ever done so. (I am not sure she ever sleeps).

Before I talk about patents in general let’s have a look at the two that triggered off this post.

US Patent No. 8,597,628 B2 was granted to Chanel Parfums Beaute, Neuilly sur Seine, France. It is for a new type of skin cream using some novel silicones. The cream has some optical effects, so it looks like Chanel are working on an instant wrinkle eraser along the lines of Nanoblur.

US Patent No. 8,597,621 B2; L’Oréal has patented an emulsion lipstick composition. This is very radical. Every lipstick on the market today is made of some kind of wax or another. If you could make one from an emulsion you would have water in the formulation. This might have some big advantages.You could quite likely get some new shade options for a start. It is bound to have a very different user experience, and the film left on the lips would probably be a lot thinner.

So a couple of interesting documents there. But patents are strange things and you need to be wary. For a start it is important to remember that they are legal documents written by lawyers hired to protect the interests of the patent holder. They aren’t written to help potential competitors like me. The aim is the opposite of clarity. They want to make it as hard as possible for you to work out what they are doing.

The lofty idea behind patents is to encourage and reward inventors by giving them twenty years of monopoly profits on their creativity. The real world is a bit murkier. Patents are sometimes taken out not to launch something new but to block other people’s activities.There is a fifties film where James Garner plays a ruthless businessman who does exactly that. Luckily he meets an attractive woman who changes his character, but that kind of thing usually needs lawyers to sort out. But fortunately the cosmetics industry is not plagued by the patent trolls you see in the tech sector, or not yet anyway.

(But see Ed’s comment below – I may be underestimating that problem – post publication edit.)

The bigger cosmetic companies have a steady stream of patents coming out. Many of them are somewhat hard to work out exactly what the motivation behind them is. Some are simply CV building exercises by individual scientists. Others are designed to show investors that they are getting something for the money they are spending on research and development.

But sometimes the system can work exactly as it is supposed to. I was once involved with a project where a retired pharmacist had patented an anti-spot treatment he had come up with. He approached the big pharmaceutical company that I worked for and I think he was rather surprised when we took him seriously. It was a pretty good product and could well have been a success. In the event it fizzled out in the way these things sometimes do, but he could have done well out of it.

If you do have an idea it is worth considering getting it patented. It will cost a lot but it might turn out to be worth it. You don’t necessarily have to go on and develop or launch the product yourself-you can always sell the rights to company that has the knowledge and expertise to do it. This is particularly well developed in the pharmaceutical world where there are people around who make a living identifying opportunities and selling them on.

The criteria for being granted a patent is interesting in itself. It relies on a legal concept that is best described as a very well informed but totally unimaginative person. They know everything, but can’t imagine something that they have never seen before. If you come across something that would surprise this person, you might well have a patentable idea. Good luck!

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2 Responses to Patents in Cosmetics

  1. Ed says:

    You’d expect the naturals beauty sector to have little to fear from patent trolls or anti-competitive patent moves, because you can’t patent a natural ingredient.

    However, we’ve had to deal with companies coming after us, the end customer, for using particular ingredients because they had a claim on the extraction process.

    We’ve seen patents which don’t patent the ingredient, but its use – e.g. using a particular ingredient in a cosmetic formulation is OK, but if you say it is good for acne, then there’s a patent on that.

    They may be unenforceable, but which small independent would want to go up against a billion dollar corporation – even if you win, you’ve lost.

    What starts off as a defensive measure by Big Beauty can swiftly become an anti-competitive strategy to prevent companies marketing products or entering new markets.

  2. Colin says:

    That is interesting, if frustrating, Ed. I haven’t heard of any cases like that so I assumed it wasn’t widespread in cosmetics, let alone the natural product sector. I might have to rewrite that bit. As you say, a small company has few cards to play if it does get into a tussle with a deep pocketed patent holder.

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