By design: Patent lawyer draws on engineering background


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

One of the oddest patents Michael Nye has seen concerned a dog tree in the shape of a forked stick and made of wood.

“The Patent Office was so embarrassed one of their examiners had allowed someone to patent a tree branch that Patent Office management made the rare decision to sua sponte reevaluate the patent and essentially take it away,” said Nye, a patent attorney with Harness Dickey in Troy. “And recently, Airbus filed a patent application on airline seating where the seats are just bicycle seats with minimal backrests that fold up when not in use – hopefully not for long international flights.”   

Nye, whose practice focuses on patents and trade secrets in electrical- and computer-related technologies, recalls a client bringing a new product to market in less than two weeks, with the need to file patent applications.

Assembling on a Monday, Nye and three colleagues had 10 days to determine the filing strategy and write the applications. With more technical information needed, the team called its client, an avid cyclist, during the section of his Saturday all-day ride where he would have mobile phone coverage.

“When we were finishing the draft applications, we were at the office until 4 a.m., and even the partner overseeing the project stayed at the office to support our push to the finish line,” Nye said.

The last of the applications have since gone through the Patent Office and issued as patents.   

According to Nye, patent trolls are a huge issue, such as MPHJ Technology, the company that believes most U.S. businesses owe it $1,000 per employee.

MPHJ asserts they have a patent covering any device — such as a multifunction printer — that can scan a paper document as well as e-mail the scanned document to a computer, he explained.

Since these sorts of printers can be had for as little as $300, many businesses have purchased one or more.

“Entities like MPHJ color the entire discussion of the present patent system and whether it effectively accomplishes its constitutional goal of promoting the progress of the useful arts or simply saps the energy and resources of the productive economy,” Nye said.   

A “tinkerer” by nature from childhood, and the son of a mechanical engineer at Ford, Nye has always loved figuring out how things work.

“My father and I can spend hours at an antique machine show, speculating how the various pieces and parts of a steam engine interoperate,” he said. “I remember during middle school having a breadboard science kit, which could be configured in different ways — one project was a circuit that broadcast an audio signal to be picked up by my parents’ AM radio.”   

Earning undergrad and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan, Nye worked during engineering school in the DEC Alpha microprocessor development group at Compaq Computer and as an intern in the air management group at Borg Warner Automotive.
After graduating, he worked as a digital systems consultant for Agilent Technologies during its spinoff from Hewlett-Packard.    

While visiting a law student friend, he sat in on a civil procedure class.

“I loved that glimpse of the rules — it seemed to be another opportunity to learn how things worked,” he said. “The law governs many aspects of our modern lives, and it was fascinating to study how the pieces and parts of the legal system operate.”   

Nye went on to earn his J.D., with high honors, from Michigan State University of College of Law, where it was suggested that his engineering background would make patent law an excellent choice.

He attended a patent law presentation by Harness Dickey partners Ryan Massey and Michael Malinzak, who then invited Nye to interview at the firm.

“To my great surprise I got a summer associate offer, and I’ve worked there ever since,” he said.   

According to Nye, attorneys with a scientific background are not abundant, so patent law is a profitable field.

“I enjoy getting to engage the technical side of my brain on a daily basis, so my focus is not solely on law and procedure,” he said. “Even after 10 years in the subspecialty of computer and electrical patent law, I learn something new every day on both the legal and technical side.”   

The Dearborn native now lives in Oakland Township, where he and his wife, Erica, and 2-year-old daughter, Allison, live on a miniature farm, soon to be complete with a tractor and horses.

“Already, keeping up with the mowing and trying to clear the fence line are new — and, for the moment, enjoyable — hobbies,” he said.   

Previously involved with Habitat for Humanity, where he learned skills that proved useful with each house he has lived in, Nye now focuses his charitable efforts on church, where he and his wife — co-pastor of the congregation — invest time and money in helping their community and causes around the world.

Nye accompanied his wife to Russia and Ukraine, where she was tasked with learning what young adults from around the world needed and wanted from the church.

“To me, growing up during the Cold War, it was surreal to be standing in the middle of Red Square, where the May Day shows of military force had been held,” he said. “In Ukraine, we visited a young entrepreneurs’ club in Donetsk, the center of the current Russian-speaking rebellion. I pray for the safety of everyone we met.”