The Importance of a Lab Notebook

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Years after obtaining a patent on the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell was challenged by another inventor who claimed he had first devised the telephone. Bell fought a contentious lawsuit and proved, with the aid of his lab documents and his wife’s testimony, that his invention had priority. Patent protection is often dependent on proving who and how an invention was created. Documentation of inventions, an essential element in the patent process because it authenticates the invention process.

The most reliable and useful way to document an invention is to use a permanently bound notebook with the pages consecutively numbered, usually known as a lab notebook. Engineering and laboratory supply stores sell these notebooks with lines at the bottom of each page for signatures and signature dates of the inventor and the witnesses. A standard crackle-finish school notebook is also suitable, provided that the inventor numbers all of the pages consecutively, and has each page or each invention description dated, signed, and witnessed.

The lab notebook usually includes:

  • descriptions of the invention and novel features
  • procedures used in the building and testing of the invention
  • drawings, photos, or sketches of the invention
  • test results and conclusions
  • discussions of any known prior-art references, and 
  • additional documentation, such as correspondence and purchase receipts.#mce_temp_url#

The Inventor’s Notebook, by Fred Grissom and David Pressman (Nolo), provides organized guidance for properly documenting the inventor’s invention. More information about The Inventor’s Notebook and how to order it can be found at the end of this book. Lab notebooks can be purchased through Eureka Lab Book, Inc. or Scientific Notebook Company.

How Information Is Entered in the Notebook

Entries must be handwritten and must accurately describe how events occurred.

All entries must be dated as of the date the entry is made or must include an explanation for any delays in making an entry. The inventor must sign every entry. Computer printouts or other items that can’t be entered directly in the notebook can be signed, dated, and witnessed, and then pasted or affixed in the notebook in chronological order. Photos or other entries that can’t be signed are pasted in the notebook with a permanent adhesive and referenced by legends using descriptive words, such as “photo taken of machine in operation,” made directly in the notebook. Draw in lead lines that extend from the notebook page over onto the photo to prevent a charge of substituting subsequently made photos. These pages are signed, dated, and witnessed in the usual manner. An item covering an entire page should be referred to on an adjacent page. A sketch drawn in pencil should be photocopied and affixed in the inventor’s notebook in order to preserve a permanent copy.

Witnessing the Notebook

Notebook entries should be witnessed because an inventor’s own testimony, even if supported by a properly completed notebook, will often be inadequate for proving an entry date.

The witnesses do more than verify the inventor’s signature; they actually read or view and understand the technical subject material in the notebook, including the actual tests if they are witnessing the building and testing. For this reason, the chosen witnesses should have the ability or background to understand the invention. If the invention is a very simple mechanical device, practically anyone will have the technical qualifications to be a witness. But if it involves advanced chemical or electronic concepts, a witness must possess adequate background in the field. If called upon later, the witnesses must be able to testify to their own knowledge that the facts of the entry are correct. While one witness may be sufficient, two are preferred because this enhances the likelihood of at least one of them being available to testify at a later date. If both are available, the inventor’s case will be very strong.

Some notebooks already contain a line for the inventor’s signature and date on each page, together with the words “Witnessed and Understood” with lines for two signatures and dates. If the inventor’s notebook doesn’t already contain these words and signature lines, the inventor should write them in.

To preserve the trade secret status of the inventor’s invention, the inventor should add the words “The above confidential information is” just before the words “Witnessed and Understood.”

Portions of this article are derived from Nolo's Patents for Beginners.

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