Ultra Pro and the Patent Lifecycle

A bit of online discussion about my previous patent post got me thinking about the patent lifecycle and the way that patent numbers are printed, or not, on products.

Unlike copyrights,* patents have only a 20-year lifespan. After they expire the patent holder no longer has a monopoly on the design. Printing the patent number on a product is only legal if the patent has not yet expired.**

*which remain active as long as Disney wants them to.

**Topps has gotten trouble for this in the past.

While patents don’t show up on cards very often they do show up on other things we handle all the time. For example pages. When I was a kid in the early 1990s Ultra Pro pages were the fancy new thing. I couldn’t always afford them but I got them when I could. They just felt better at the time and upon revisiting my childhood collection 25 years later the Ultra Pros were the only ones that were still usable.

Yeah I’m still using Ultra Pro pages from before they added the holograph. More importantly for this post, they state “patent pending” which gives us a decent idea as to when the 20 year clock started. There is no patent number listed on the pages I’ve purchased since I rejoined the hobby in 2017. Nor should there be since 2017 is more than 20 years after the early 1990s.

I asked on Twitter if anyone had any Ultra Pro pages from the 2000s and lo and behold, the Twiter hive mind/collection responded.

This page is from around 2010 and lists two patents, 5266150 and 5312507. Presumably UltraPro included these numbers on all their tooling for the ~20 years that those patents were valid and then had to retool once they expired.

Anyway, now that we have numbers let’s take a look. The first thing I found was that the two patents are basically the same. The earlier one, 5266150, is a bit larger and the portion relevant to making the pages was split off into its own patent, 5312507 so we’re only really looking at one patent here. And looking at the timeline we can see when Ultra Pro would’ve been printing a patent number on its sheets

1991-03-08 Priority to US07/666,260
1993-09-10 Application filed by Rembrandt Photo Services
1994-05-17 Application granted
1994-05-17 Publication of US5312507A
2011-05-17 Anticipated expiration

So if you got UltraPros between 1994 and 2011 odds are the patent numbers are on there. This means I just missed getting some of these since I dropped out of the hobby on August 12, 1994 and didn’t get around to paging any of the cards I had purchased that year.

Looking at the rest of the patent, the pictures very clearly show the nine-pocket pages we’re all familiar with but the patent itself is actually about how to weld polypropylene together. A long pull quote from the patent itself explains the problem and in doing so, also describes the nature of card pages in the late 1980s.

Unlike vinyl, attempts to weld polypropylene sheets (as well as other polyolefin sheets) by radio-frequency welding techniques have been in general unsatisfactory. Instead, thermocontact welding is generally employed, although attempts to produce a solid weld seam by thermocontact welding have previously caused the welded sheets to exhibit a tendency to curl or otherwise deform, thought to be a result of polypropylene’s sensitivity to heat. In order to prevent curling or deformation, prior art thermocontact methods for welding polypropylene sheets have utilized discontinuous or intermittent die surfaces for producing discontinuous or intermittent welded seams—i.e. the welded seam is comprised of a sequence or series of welded dots or short dashes with unwelded material between successive dots or dashes.

So many of my childhood pages were vinyl and just did not age well. Thankfully none destroyed my cards. I also had a decent number of pages with seams that were welded in dashes. These did better but I never liked them. There’s a reason why UltraPro became the standard.

The rest of the patent explains how the pages are made. From what I can tell the key distinction is that only one side of the metal die that does the welding is heated. The other is kept cool and I guess this makes the overall operation run cooler so only the seams get heated and the rest of the polypropylene has no chance to thermally deform.

What I found more interesting was that I never gave much thought to how the pages were actually put together with one big sheet of plastic in the back and three narrow strips on the front for each row of pages. I had to read about how the pages were assembled from 4 rolls of plastic* to realize that many of Ultra Pro’s products** are optimized around this arrangement.

*one for the back, 3 for the front.

**Such as its 15-pocket tobacco card pages.

Anyway, I found it an interesting read and decided to see what else UltraPro owned. Most of it wasn’t particularly interesting but one patent did jump out at me.

Yup. We’ve got a one-touch patent. This patent references a patent from a decade earlier for the single-screw cardholder and its main novelty is the replacement of the screw with a pair of magnets. No need to go too in depth on this one since it’s all about the functionality of the design and we’re all familiar with that. But it’s still a fun one to see and I like the idea that it took us from 1994 to 2003 to realize that we could replace a screw with a magnet.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

5 thoughts on “Ultra Pro and the Patent Lifecycle”

  1. As far as I can tell, Ultra Pro has stopped making its Platinum four-pocket sheets for graded cards. They had the patent numbers you reference. I imagine it’s because there’s not enough weird-dos like me who want to store their PSA cards in 3-ring binders.

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      1. I’m fairly certain the graded card pages are different than the 4-pocket pages. There is a seller on eBay selling (or trying to sell) a single graded card page for $35. You should be able to get a box of regular 4-pockets directly for a good bit less than that.

        Of course there is also a seller on eBay trying to sell an ungraded 1990 Fleer Jose Uribe for $90,000 so …

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  2. Funny, last night I was upgrading the pages in my 1978 T set. I replaced older Ultra Pro pages with the current lightweight version. And I tossed a few that were simply branded “Rotman”.

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  3. When I got back into collecting in 2014 it was hit or miss digging out all my binders. Most of the plastic sheets I had were from the 80s and were yellowed or warped. But high marks to a brand called MEGACARDS that holds my 1992 Classic NBA Draft Picks set. These sheets are good as new, even though I’ve had them for nearly 30 years.

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